Spicy Food and Hemorrhoids: Is There a Link?
Of the many myths surrounding spicy foods, one of the most misunderstood is the idea that spicy foods cause hemorrhoids. Because spicy food is known to get the digestive system moving, and hemorrhoids are a painful condition that cause discomfort during defecation, it’s an understandable link. But there is a lot of misinformation floating around about what causes hemorrhoids and what can aggravate them. Before you decide to cut spicy foods out of your diet for good, let’s look at the relationship between spice and the causes of hemorrhoids.
What Are Hemorrhoids?
Inside and around the anus are a network of blood vessels that provide nutrients to the muscles used for everything from bathroom breaks to standing up from a seated position. These blood vessels can at times become swollen and inflamed, which causes a lot of discomfort and, occasionally, even bleeding. Inflamed blood vessels in and around the anus are called hemorrhoids.
When hemorrhoids are present, then entire connective tissue in the area can also become swollen, which adds pressure on the already-inflamed blood vessels, making it worse. The body actually develops hemorrhoids as a protective measure. Similar to callouses that are developed to protect your heel from a rubbing shoe, the blood vessels and connective tissue swell in order to protect the colon and anus from damage.
The fact that these are a protective measure doesn’t really stop them from being painful. Nearly 4.5% of the American population can attest to the fact that this problem is not only uncomfortable, but can also be expensive to fully eradicate. Just what it is that the body is reacting to in the first place? What sends up the signal that your colon may need protecting at all?
What Causes Hemorrhoids?
Is there any reason to believe that eating spicy food could cause the body to believe that the colon is in danger? So far, science hasn’t been able to explain away hemorrhoids as the symptom of any specific cause. Instead, they are likely experienced with a person has a combination of many factors at play, including:
- Lifting heavy load
- Sitting in one position for long periods of time
These things are thought to cause hemorrhoids because they all involve putting sustained pressure on the pelvic floor. However, aging, obesity, and poor vascular health are also thoughtto be factors in developing hemorrhoids.
There are things that are thought to increase the risk of developing hemorrhoids later in life, including regular high alcohol intake, a diet that is high in refined carbs and low in fiber, or a diet that lacks in the essential fats like omega-3 fats and other nutrients like zinc.
As you can see, spicy foods do not cause hemorrhoids. The only things that can cause this condition are activities that put pressure on the pelvic floor, lifestyle choices that lead to overall bad health, and natural aging. However, there is a link between spicy foods and the condition, once it has been caused.
The Impact of Spicy Food on Hemorrhoids
When spicy foods are consumed, the body digests a chemical compound called capsaicin. This compound is what gives peppers their heat, and it is what causes your mouth to burn when eating. Capsaicin isn’t something that the body digests for fuel; rather, once the compound has interacted with the nerve cells in your mouth, it is then passed through the digestive system and excreted.
Maybe you can already spot the problem. The lining of the colon and anus contains similar nerve cells as the cells located in the mouth. So when capsaicin shows up in the last part of digestion, the “heat” can irritate your colon. This is why so many people report painful hot sensations when they use the bathroom after eating spicy foods. If you already have hemorrhoids, this sensation can definitely aggravate an already painful situation.
Another problem that links spicy food to pain and hemorrhoids is the fact that spicy foods can often cause bouts of diarrhea. The chemical compounds in spicy foods often act as an anti-inflammatory – which may sound good at first, seeing as the problem is inflammation, but actually backfires when you understand that the body is using the inflammation to protect the anus from excessive use.
As the stomach produces more acid due to eating spicy food, digestion is encouraged, and the colon is relaxed. It’s common knowledge that spicy foods are more acidic than bland foods. This fact can irritate the intestinal lining. When the body senses that intestines are irritated, it sends stored water to the site to calm the issue. This water is what then makes stools very loose, which will irritate the problem. All of these facts combined in one instance of diving into a plate of your favorite spicy cuisine means that you may be in for a difficult night.
Can You Prevent Diarrhea and Still Eat Spicy Foods?
If the main problem with spicy foods is that they cause diarrhea, then it’s normal to wonder if you can still enjoy a plate of hot wings even if you have hemorrhoids. All you need to do is prevent the diarrhea, right? While this won’t entirely solve all the ways spicy foods impact the digestive system, it can mean the difference between no spicy foods ever and the occasional splurge on Thai food takeout.
The biggest thing that you need to do to prevent any side effects of eating spicy foods is to counteract the acidity. This could be done by eating something with a base pH level, such as a dairy food, but keep in mind that many people experience digestive issues in reaction to dairy. Yogurt is one of the friendliest dairies when it comes to the health of the digestive tract.
While lemon may strike you as an acidic food, it becomes alkaline when it enters the body. Drinking lemon water, or adding lemon to your spicy dish, could help reduce some of the acid build up. Bread or rice can also help, but be sure to avoid anything too oily or greasy. Staying hydrated with plenty of water is important because it helps to dilute the contents of your stomach.
But overall, if you are having trouble with hemorrhoids, then your best best is to lower your intake of spicy foods to avoid the extra pain.
An Interesting Study
Even knowing exactly how hemorrhoids are caused, and how spicy foods can impact a person’s comfort if they have hemorrhoids, many doctors still advise at-risk patients against eating spicy foods. In order to show for good that spicy foods aren’t a cause or even a significant irritant of this condition, a placebo-controlled experiment was conducted in 2006. A group of patients with existing hemorrhoids where given a placebo, while another group was given a red chili pepper capsule.
The point of the experiment was to monitor the development or increase in symptoms such as itching, burning, swelling, pain, and bleeding. The results showed that there was no significant change across the board in either group. The experiment concluded that no evidence supports the idea that spicy foods do much damage to existing hemorrhoids when eaten in moderation.
In other words, there’s no reason to stop getting your Mexican food fix just because you’re dealing with hemorrhoids. Just don’t make it an every-day thing, and you’ll probably be okay.
Which Spices Are Better for Digestion?
There are certain spices that are known to be better for digestion than others. If you ever get the chance to travel to India, you’ll find out very quickly that spice is not only part of every single meal (even dessert!), but also that spices are used in traditional medicinal techniques. The same way a mother might give a child complaining of a tummy ache a dose of Pepto in America, mothers in India might brew up a tea filled with ginger and cardamom. Can’t sleep? Indian grandmothers swear by warm milk mixed with a little coriander.
If people living in cultures where spice is a part of their everyday cuisine can deal with hemorrhoids or other digestive problems, without ceasing to eat the only foods that are readily available, what’s the secret? In my quest to understand more about the way spicy foods impact the body, I’ve come to learn that not all spices are created equal. In fact, certain spices have soothing properties that will do more good for the digestive tract than bad.
- Cinnamon: We think of cinnamon as a sweet ingredient because it is so commonly paired with sugar – but cinnamon is a type of spice that is frequently prescribed to help regulate blood sugar. This is one of the easiest spices to digest, and doesn’t cause a major build up of stomach acid. Doctors also believe that cinnamon can help to heal ulcers.
- Turmeric: Turmeric contains a component called cur-cumin, which has been studied for cancer-treating properties in recent medical trials. This spice is what gives curry its unique flavor, so you know it can pack a pretty hefty punch when made right. But despite the heat, turmeric is actually pretty easy on the digestive system. It naturally relieves pain, reduces inflammation, helps fight Alzheimer’s, lowers cholesterol, and is blowing doctors away with its cancer-fighting properties – and that’s just some of what turmeric can do. If you’re going to indulge in one spicy food at all, let it be curry.
- Coriander: Coriander has a specific digestive discomfort-easing property that makes it ideal for the hemorrhoid sufferer who wants to enjoy a spicy meal. Coriander has been shown to reduce cramps, bloating, and diarrhea and constipation. It has also been shown to help relieve symptoms of colon cancer, and possibly even fight it. There are two types of coriander – European, which is more widely available, and Indian. Both can be used as a substitution for the other. Use coriander to create some delicious Moroccan dishes like roasted lamb.
- Ginger: Known for it’s anti-nausea properties, ginger has long been a favorite of pregnant mothers and people who get motion sickness. However, ginger can also help prevent or treat high cholesterol, heartburn, indigestion, and cancer. Ginger is particularly popular in East Asian cuisine.
- Fennel seeds: Fennel seeds are a spice that come from a plant that is also edible as an herb and a plant. This may be why few people realize this is a type of spice. Fennel seeds can produce an anti-inflammatory effect that is similar to the effect of ibuprofen. Fennel is known to calm colic, treat IBS, and fight cancer. Fennel is often used in Egyptian dishes, and also in Mediterranean food.
The Bottom Line
No, spices do not cause hemorrhoids. While spices do have quite a few properties that could cause painful irritation for patients with existing hemorrhoids, there is ample evidence to support the idea that occasional spicy dishes aren’t going to make hemorrhoids any more painful.
Additionally, there are several spices that can be beneficial for your digestive system. In areas of the world like India, people frequently treat digestive issues with spices like turmeric and ginger.
But the bottom line is that you should listen to your body. If you notice that spicy foods make it painful to go to the bathroom, or if existing hemorrhoids seem to flare up after eating spicy foods, then you may want to back off those dishes for a while. It could be the peppers, or it could be another ingredient in the dish. But at the end of the day, no matter how good spicy foods taste, your body’s wellbeing comes first. Put your favorite dishes on hold till the hemorrhoids clear up, or limit yourself to just a few spicy dishes on occasion.
And as soon as you’re feeling better, you can jump right back in to loving spicy foods! Eating them won’t make you more likely to redevelop hemorrhoids a second time, so there’s no need to avoid the siren call of spicy heat.