When Spice is NOT so Nice
We probably have all heard of this at some point: spicy foods can cause diarrhea and even contribute to IBS. But that's not always true, at least of all spices. Some spices can sometimes be beneficial for IBS (at least in small or moderate doses). Ginger, for instance, can help relieve nausea (which can sometimes accompany IBS flares or be its own separate symptom of it) and overall inflammation.
Likewise, I personally have experienced a lot of benefits by using certain mild spices such as rosemary, basil, parsley, and thyme, including an easing of my IBS symptoms. There was a time I cooked everything with rosemary and thyme and used to chew basil leaves as snacks. Coincidentally or not, this was also around the time I started experiencing an-almost-complete remission of my IBS symptoms for many months. It turns out, I may have been onto something because the Cleveland Clinic actually recommends these spices for an IBS diet.1
Some hot spices can trigger IBS flares
However, certain "hot" spices – that is, those that burn in the mouth and presumably the gut, too – can sometimes trigger IBS flares and symptoms in some people. I personally cannot ingest hot spices. Not only do hot spices aggravate my GERD, but they can flare my IBS as well. Upon some research, I found that some studies back up my experience and one even offered a potential cause for this phenomenon.
Research studies on spicy food and IBS
Specifically, one study containing a large survey of 4,763 Iranian adults found that those who consumed spicy foods 10 or more times per week were 92 percent more likely to have IBS compared with those who never consumed spicy foods--even after controlling for other potential IBS triggers such as lactose.2 And another study found that IBS patients tend to have a greater number of a specific type of nerve fiber (3.5 times more when compared to controls) that reacts with pain to a substance within chili peppers known as capsaicin (strangely, Cleveland Clinic also recommended chili to IBS patients, so I'd be wary of that suggestion).3
My gut instinct about spicy food
Before I ever knew this data, I followed my "gut" instinct and my personal experiences. As such, I tend to eat a rather mild diet in general. Yet, I admit I do have an affinity for Indian and Thai foods. This means when I eat out and order dishes from Indian and Thai restaurants, I not only make sure to indicate I want my meal "mild" when they ask how hot/spicy I'd like it but that I take the extra precaution of really emphasizing my dietary needs by (politely) saying I need it "extra mild" or "as mild are you can possibly make it."
How I have avoided IBS issues
By doing this, I have mostly avoided issues, though rarely, if it's still served too spicy, I have let the establishment know right away. I usually frequent the same establishments, so by now, they know my needs and preferences well. I also avoid dishes that are inherently spicy and can't be changed to be made milder (I pay extra close attention to the little chili pepper symbol next to spicy meals and flag them to avoid). By doing this, I have managed to lower incidences of flares.
Do spicy foods help or hurt your IBS? Which ones help and which ones hurt or do you find it best to avoid all or most of them?
Do you live with any sleep disorders (eg. insomnia, RLS, sleep apnea) in addition to IBS?