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Does Spicy Food Really Cause Ulcers?
Red chilli peppers.
Credit: © Nenovbrothers | Dreamstime.com

For decades, doctors thought eating a lot of spicy food caused stomach ulcers, or painful sores on the lining of the esophagus, stomach or upper area of the small intestine. It certainly made sense, as patients would often complain of burning stomach pains after eating spicy food. The treatment: a strict diet of bland food (which didn’t actually get rid of the ulcer pain).

But in the 1980s, scientists put this old wives’ tale to rest (at least in the medical community — a lot of people still believe this one). Studies showed that spicy food doesn’t cause ulcers, though it can irritate existing ulcers, which explains the misunderstanding.

The real culprit behind the majority of ulcers, researchers found, was the bacterium Helicobacter pylori. When H. pylori enters the body, it heads for the stomach, excreting protective enzymes to shield it from the stomach’s harmful digestive acids. H. pylori then burrows into the stomach’s mucosal lining, which partially protects it from white blood cells, the immune system’s main weapon against bacterial intruders. Ulcers then develop as the bacteria colonize the stomach.

Today's ulcer treatments usually involve antibiotics to kill the infection, but recent research has shown that cranberry juice may be effective, too. Interestingly, cranberry juice has long been a part of another popular — and possibly true — tale asserting that the tart drink effectively fights bladder infections. The mechanism behind both treatments is thought to be the same: Compounds in cranberry juice prevent bacteria from adhering to the cells lining the urinary tract and prevent H. pylori from sticking to the lining of the stomach.

This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Life's Little Mysteries @llmysteries. We're also on Facebook & Google+.