Does spicy food cause ulcers?

Monday, August 14, 2006
Ulcers are agony — but can they be caused by eating spicy food?

Ask someone in the street what causes ulcers and top of their list will probably be stress, followed a close second by spicy food. And it's that second theory we're interested in testing.

After all, a classic ulcer treatment used to be to eat bland food, but will spicing things up actually cause an ulcer?

We aim to find out, and that means it's going to be a hot old night on the town.

An ulcer's not something you'd wish on your worst enemy, reckons Professor Thomas Borody. He's treated 18,000 patients and he knows exactly what sort of agony ulcers cause.

"People's lives can be ruined, they can have 20, 30 years of recurrent pain that wakes them at one or two o'clock in the morning," he says.

Our test combatants, Malcolm Burgess and Marcus Taylor, don't seem too concerned about ulcers.

Malcolm: "I've heard spicy food causes ulcers but I'm not sure."

Marcus: "I've never heard of anyone having problems with it … but there's always a first time."

What is it about men and spicy food? On any night, in any Asian restaurant, you'll find two blokes facing off over who can eat the hottest dish.

"This guy doesn't know what he's up against — I can handle my chillies," warns Malcolm.

The venue is Sydney's Spice I Am Thai restaurant. And with chef Sujet Seankham presiding, it's arguably the hottest food in Sydney.

Sujet's going to serve up the hottest chillies he can, starting around inferno level, and working his way up.

Let the challenge begin!

Chef Sujet's reputation is at stake here and really, he's just warming up.

"This particular dish isn't very hot at all. I'm not having any trouble with it," says Marcus.

No trouble, Marcus?

Marcus wipes brow: "It's actually quite hot."

Malcolm: "If you can't handle it, we can stop any time you want."

Marcus is starting to feel the heat. But according to herbalist and naturopath Ruth Kendon, what he's actually feeling is the effects of a compound called capsaicin.

More capsaicin means hotter chillies!

"They contain anything from one percent capsaicin down to 0.01 percent. So that's a hundredfold difference. So you can have one chilli that's a hundred times as strong as the other chilli and it's the capsaicin dose that counts," says Ruth.

Back at the restaurant it seems as though the capsaicin count's been turned up a notch. The smart thing to do would be to give up now — so they'll keep going.

They're both ready for their next dish — bring on the big guns!

Some time later, our chilli challenge has reached meltdown. No one's giving in, but what we really want to know is will all this spicy food end up giving them ulcers?

Marcus has been feeling the effects for a while and, for the first time, Malcolm's starting to wilt too. These guys just don't know when to stop.

"Yep, definitely a fire going on in there," says Malcolm.

No one's enjoying the challenge, but here's some good news from Professor Borody: "Spicy foods, no matter how much you eat, will not cause ulcers."

Professor Borody knows that, thanks to the work of West Australians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall. They won the Nobel Prize after proving most ulcers aren't caused by stress or spicy food. Rather, a bacteria is to blame — helicobacter pylori.

"It infects nearly half the world's population, nearly three billion people, and it causes a lot of death and destruction from bleeding and stomach cancer," says Professor Borody.

No one believed them about the bacteria, so Barry Marshall swallowed it. It gave him ulcer-like symptoms, and proved his theory. It's made the world of difference for ulcer sufferers. For a start, diagnosing them is now as easy as swallowing a pill.

"This is where we do the test that was developed by Dr Barry Marshall whereby we give you a capsule to swallow and this capsule contains a special chemical that the bacteria will break down," says Professor Borody.

If you've got the ulcer-causing bacteria, it'll react with the pill, and the result shows up in a simple breath test.

All the patient has to do is wait 20 minutes or so while their breath is analysed.

In the past you'd have needed an operation to fix an ulcer … now all it takes is a simple course of antibiotics.

"If your mother had indigestion, and your brother had an ulcer, most likely she was a source of your infection. And it was certainly not the spicy foods," says the professor.

Back at the restaurant there's been an unexpected breakout of commonsense. The boys have called it quits, it's a draw.

Marcus: "I think it's probably the hottest chillies I've ever eaten. My mouth is on fire. My tongue is probably swollen."

Malcolm: "I can't feel my head any more. But I can feel it in my body."

We now know they won't be getting ulcers from that fiery feed and believe it or not, herbalist Ruth Kendon believes the chilli might actually have done their stomachs some good.

"The stomach burns, protects itself, blood flows, the stomach wall starts repairing itself very quickly and that's why chilli can be used to fix stomach aches and dyspepsia," she says.

Chilli has also been used to help relieve arthritic pain. And ironically, that burning sensation stimulates the release of endorphins, which make us feel good. Which explains why some blokes just can't get enough of the stuff.

There you have it — our chilli champs are safe and the rest of us can continue our love affair with spicy food.

Thanks to our brilliant Nobel Prize winners, the treatment is painless and you can be ulcer-free in less than a fortnight.

  • Most people reach for a glass of water to quench a fiery mouthful of chilli, but is that the best way? Water is worst because capsaicin, the hot compound in chilli, is insoluble in water. Beer is better because capsaicin dissolves in alcohol. But the best drink for quenching that fire in your mouth is a glass of milk, because capsaicin dissolves very well in the presence of fats.

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