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Is Your Insane Hot Sauce Habit Destroying Your Stomach?

Or your butthole?
Paula Thomas / Getty

Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.


The Scenario
Your friend is really into hot sauce. No like, really. She's carried it in her bag way before Bey made it swag. She puts in on eggs in the morning, drowns burgers in it at lunch, and you swear you've seen homie take a swig directly from the bottle more than once. Whether it's Sriracha, Frank's Red Hot, Brazilian hot sauce she bought on the side of the road in Bahia, or even the the basic bitch of hot sauce: Tabasco, the extent to which your friend indulges scares you a little bit. Something has to be happening to her stomach lining or at the very least, her butthole. But peppers can also be good for you. So is the spiciness keeping her alive longer, or should she prep for a fiery gastric explosion of sorts?

The Facts
At the risk of sounding stupid, hot sauce is, well, hot. It makes you cry, it burns your mouth, and heaven forbid you touch a chili pepper and then your eye. So we get it. Logic would follow that if something can cause you physical discomfort, it probably isn't doing your internal organs any favors. But it's true that spicy foods can benefit your health.

"Chilies tend to contain large amounts of vitamin A and C. These vitamins may have a slight effect at improving your immune system and helping your body fight infection," says Hardeep Singh, a gastroenterologist at St. Joseph Hospital in California.

Singh says cultures that eat lots of spicy foods high have lower rates of heart attack and stroke (though he also admits that this could be a result of genetics rather than hot sauce love). The active ingredient in most hot sauce is something called capsaicin, a chemical compound found in chili peppers that messes with the nerve endings on your skin. "Capsaicin is said to lower levels of bad cholesterol in the body, and although the evidence is weak, some suggests that capsaicin helps increase metabolism and promote weight loss," Singh says.


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The Worst That Could Happen
We know what you're thinking: Why can some people take hot sauce to the head, but I get volcanic diarrhea just from looking at spicy salsa? Tolerance for spice varies widely between people, but that doesn't mean there aren't real side effects when someone eats too much.

"The spiciness of peppers is measured in a unit called SHU," Singh says. "Anything over 1 million shu is very spicy. Some people, when eating these specialty peppers, can experience severe indigestion, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and perhaps even pass out from the effects." And while it's debatable whether spicy food actually causes acid reflux and heartburn—they will exacerbate these conditions.

There's research that shows the long-term effects of spicy food on the cultures that consume high amounts of spicy foods—they might have a higher risk for stomach and throat cancer. And let's not forget the case where a toddler who was given a ghost pepper suffered from seizure and then died. While we can assume your friend isn't a baby, it's pretty damn scary to know that a pepper could be toxic to a (mini) human.

What Will Probably Happen
Your friend is probably going to live, but there's research that says spicy food can affect taste buds negatively. And that sauce-induced acid reflux and heartburn that we discussed—they can cause stomach pain, tooth decay, and sore throat, so hitting the bottle may not be the best habit but it's not going to end in a full gastric meltdown. Getting lost in the sauce will probably just give your friend some stomach discomfort and a mounting aversion to any food that's Mexican, Thai, or Indian.

What Should I Tell My Friend?
If your friend is happy and healthy, let her douse whatever, whenever she wants. But if you're hell bent on being a buzzkilling sauce-blocker, urge her to pay attention to how she's feeling. If there is physical discomfort or she finds herself spending too much time on the toilet, it's a good idea to suggest exercising some moderation.

Leslie Korn, a traumatologist who works with clients to determine how dietary choices impact mental health, also suggests exploring the psychological aspect of their hot sauce habit. "Do they smoke or do they over salt their food, and [as a result] not have a refined sense of taste?" she asks. "Or perhaps is there vinegar or sugar in the hot sauce that they crave and feel energized? Whenever I examine a lot of certain type of consumption I ask: What are you getting out of it?"

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