Dr Wang Yu Tien
Mala Xiang Guo – one of the food fads that many of us have come to know and love. That hot and spicy goodness that brings a spicy, tingly and numbing sensation to our tastebuds, is quite literally, a hot favourite amongst foodies in Singapore.
Many of us who have tried the dish might have experienced the short-term discomforts such overly-spicy food can bring to our digestive systems. It may be part of the gastronomic experience, but it is also important to be aware that overindulgence can cause digestive problems.
One concern is how well our bodies can handle the heat of this popular dish.
When food gets into our digestive tract, it travels down our throat to our oesophagus, and then our stomach. Food gets broken down in our stomach before getting sent to our intestines where the nutrients are absorbed before what’s left is passed out of our bodies.
When we eat spicy food, these parts of the body can get irritated, leading to discomfort and even pain. For those with existing gastrointestinal conditions, the discomfort can be intensified.
Mala sauce primarily contains spicy ingredients such as dried chilli peppers, chilli powder and Sichuan peppercorns. While spicy food dishes ignite some fire in our bellies and even bring along certain health benefits, they can also present some health concerns.
In general, spicy food irritates our stomachs. Chillies and pepper contain a combination of acids which can cause the walls of our stomachs to burn when consumed in larger amounts. In the short-term, one may feel discomfort in the form of stomach pain, throat and oesophagus discomfort, indigestion, bloating and diarrhoea.
While spicy foods are typically not known to cause long-term health problems, overindulging in them for extended periods of time can intensify existing gastrointestinal problems, such as:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a chronic condition that It causes symptoms such as stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. A study found that individuals who consumed spices such as curry, chilli powder and turmeric over 10 times a week were more likely to get IBS than those who don’t.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
This takes place when acidic stomach contents flow back into the oesophagus. The reflux can cause irritation, especially with spicy food, and even damage the oesophagus lining. In the long run, it can result in upper gastrointestinal pain and heartburn, which can then escalate into more serious health issues.
Characterised by an uncomfortable burning sensation that radiates up the chest, heartburn can be caused by eating spicy food. This happens when one’s acid secretion increases, which sets the stage for heartburn. Peppers in mala include a combination of acids, such as capsaicin. When we consume too much, the walls of our stomach start to feel the effects of these acids and irritate the tract which food travels down to our stomachs, resulting in heartburn. In the long term, this problem may become chronic.
Gastritis is the inflammation of the gastric mucosa or stomach lining. This is the barrier that protects the stomach lining from irritants (such as spicy food) and digestive juices. When the health of this protective barrier is compromised, individuals may notice an increased pain in the abdomen, experience bloating, nausea or a burning sensation after intense, spicy food are consumed.
Also known as sores, these ulcers develop in the lining of the stomach, lower oesophagus, or first part of the small intestine. Such sores can become more painful when irritated by the spicy food that enters the stomach. If left untreated, the sores can lead to more serious health complications such as a perforated ulcer, a bleeding ulcer or scar tissue that may cause strictures, making it difficult for food to pass through one’s digestive tract.
These conditions, depending on their severity, may require a change in lifestyle habits, or even medical attention from a gastroenterologist.
Foodies and lovers of spicy food, take note. While the consumption of spicy foods does not permanently damage our digestive tracts, they can trigger, or aggravate existing digestive issues.
Spicy food may be irresistible to many of us, but it can also bring up causes for concern when we overindulge in them. Specifically, it can impact our gastrointestinal systems, some of which can pose serious concerns if untreated in the long term.
Early diagnosis and treatment is key, and a gastroenterologist can help access your condition, and advise you on your next steps to take.