Spicy Food


Have you ever wondered how that extra spoonful of hot sauce is affecting your gut health? Colon and rectal surgeon Dr. Al Pena has shared the facts and fiction of spicy food. His answers may surprise you.

Pena specializes in digestive diseases specific to the lower digestive tract and has been serving the Valley area for over 13 years. Based in McAllen, he sees patients on a daily basis who are working through cancer, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease.

There is an age-old question many people want to know the answer to: Is spicy food the cause of stomach pain, and does it cause damage?

“There is no real data that says spicy food will cause problems,” Pena said. “However, that is not the case if you already have gastritis, acid reflux disease, or GERD. In that case, avoid both spicy and fatty foods.”

Much of the time, the spicy component is complicated by the food that accompanies it.

“For example, both Indian food and Mexican food tend to have higher fat content,” Pena explained. “High-fat content foods and lactose are the actual culprits. When you throw hot spices into the mix, it could make matters worse.”

After his brother had a heart attack years ago, Pena began to do a deeper dive into nutrition and fitness.

“I began eating better and working out at the same time,” he said. “I noticed what I ate could either hinder or help my performance. A healthy meal helped me to feel better and more alert. At that point, I realized nutrition was much more important than I had originally thought.”

After making these basic lifestyle changes, which included a diet consisting of protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats, Pena lost over 100 pounds. Getting back to the basics and throwing in fitness can really make all the difference.

Pena added that people become more lactose intolerant with age.

“We weren’t designed to eat dairy, and animals don’t drink milk outside of infancy — nor do they drink other species’ milk,” he said. “So we shouldn’t, either.”

That doesn’t mean that dairy lovers should completely eliminate their favorite foods from their diets.

“I love a cheeseburger as much as the next person,” Pena said. “The goal is to consume in moderation. Anything in excess is bad.”

Dairy isn’t the only type of food that can complicate gut issues like spicy food can. Alcohol is also a common culprit.

“I can drink four to six cups of coffee a day, but as soon as I throw alcohol in the mix, it goes downhill from there,” Pena said. “Alcohol is a huge cause of gastritis and GERD. Antibiotics can also disrupt the gut microbiome.”

The gut microbiome comprises millions of both good and bad bacteria, fungi, and organisms that coexist together in the small and large intestines. It plays a pivotal role in the operation of the body. This is why the gut is referred to as the second brain. Unfortunately, medications like antibiotics, which help the body, can also hurt the body.

“As we know, the Rio Grande Valley is very close to the border, making it easy to have access to antibiotics when antibiotics aren’t always necessary,” Pena said. “For example, a common cold should not be treated with antibiotics, but many people are either incorrectly prescribed to them or incorrectly self-medicate.” Antibiotics should only be used when absolutely necessary, as they destroy both the good and bad bacteria in the gut.

Pena advises that if his clients eat healthy 80% of the time, they should be okay to cheat for the remaining 20%. This means eating healthy Monday through Friday and leaving indulgence for the weekends.

“Overeating is OK every once in a while,” Pena said. “There is no need to guilt yourself over having an indulgent dinner with your loved ones.” Make the memories. Eat the pie.

To connect with Pena, reach out to the Texas Digestive Specialists at (956) 365-4400.