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Is Spicy Food Related to Pancreatic Cancer?

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In 2015 alone, over 55,000 American adults were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  And while slightly more men are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it seems to affect both men and women equally.

Since pancreatic cancer affects an important digestive gland, what people eat can have a big impact on how they feel with this cancer. So, today we’re going to cover how spicy foods relate to pancreatic cancer (and other health problems) and why it’s best to avoid them.

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What is the pancreas?

We hear about pancreatic cancer, but do we actually remember what the pancreas is, and what its role in the body is? Here’s a quick refresher on the pancreas.

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The pancreas is a pear-shaped gland, which is near the liver, stomach, and small intestine. It’s located on the upper right side of the abdomen, and it creates enzymes and other secretions to help the body digest foods, specifically fatty foods.

What is pancreatic cancer?

As we now know, the pancreas has an important role to play in helping the body digest foods. So, it goes without saying that when tumors form in the pancreas, it interferes with its ability to produce enzymes and secretions.

While the symptoms of pancreatic cancer may be vague at first, like nausea and vomiting, they are logical symptoms, considering that the body’s digestive system is impaired by cancer within it.

And the foods people eat can either acerbate or ameliorate pancreatic cancer. To be specific, spicy foods can be a problem.

Why it’s important to avoid spicy foods with pancreatic cancer

Spicy foods and foods that have strong and pungent odors can be problematic for pancreatic cancer patients. That’s because these foods can cause nausea or make it worse.

Here’s a list of spicy and pungent foods to avoid:

  • Pungent cheeses, i.e., stinky cheeses, like Limburger, Camembert or Roquefort
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Scallions
  • Hot peppers
  • Hot sauce

In addition to avoiding spicy foods like these, experts recommend avoiding fatty meat and snacks, along with fried food. Instead, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains are usually easier for the body to digest without irritating the digestive system further.

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Is spicy food a problem for other health conditions?

For healthy individuals, spicy food can offer a wide range of benefits. They can boost metabolism and support healthy weight loss. They’re also great for the cardiovascular system, as well as cancer prevention.

But what if your health is already compromised? Are spicy foods a good option then? Well, it all depends on the health problem, but along with pancreatic cancer, there are some health conditions that can get worse with spicy foods.

Acid reflux

Acid reflux occurs when digestive acids actually move up into the esophagus. If you suffer from acid reflux, it’s best to avoid spicy foods with high acidity levels, such as tomato products and citrus fruits, according to Marie Borum, M.D., director of the division of gastroenterology and liver disease at George Washington University.

As Borum explains, the high acidity levels of the food itself can be what causes heartburn, rather than the reflux itself.


Heartburn is a symptom of acid reflux. It doesn’t always occur where there’s acid reflux, but it can. And so, it’s a good idea to avoid spicy, acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus. But it’s also good to cut back on fatty foods, alcohol, caffeine and yes, even chocolate.

If you have a penchant for spicy foods, but also suffer from acid reflux and heartburn, you may still be able to enjoy this fare, but it’s important to do so wisely. Here are some basic tips to keep in mind before you dowse your taco with hot sauce:

  • Eat small amounts of spicy food
  • Pair spicy food with good sources of fat, such as avocado, sour cream, etc., to help prevent it from burning the esophagus
  • Avoid laying down after eating, as this will allow the acids to flow into the esophagus more easily


Have you ever had to make an emergency trip to the bathroom following a spicy Mexican meal? You might love spicy foods, but your digestive system might not.

The active component in some peppers called, capsaicin can actually create a burning sensation with the tissues it comes into contact with.

And according to Niket Sonpal, M.D., an assistant professor at Touro College of Medicine in New York City, “Capsaicin can act as a laxative for some people and cause a quick run to the bathroom.”


Spicy foods don’t cause ulcers, but they can irritate ulcers that are already present in the stomach. That’s because an ulcer is actually an open wound within the stomach, and hot, spicy compounds, such as capsaicin, can burn and acerbate ulcers in the stomach.

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Gastrointestinal diseases, such as bowel disorders

If you suffer from digestive problems, such as bowel disorders or leaky gut syndrome, it might be a good idea to avoid hot, spicy foods.

However, a gastroenterologist and vice president for education at the American Digestive Disease Society, Dr. Arnold Levy, says, “Precious little data are available anywhere in any language on the effects of hot, spicy foods on the digestive tract.”

Therefore, while research can’t say for sure if hot, spicy foods are “bad” for you, it’s important to listen to your own body. If you find that after eating spicy foods, you experience digestive upsets and discomfort, it might be wise to limit your consumption and try to identify which foods trigger these bad reactions.

You can also consult with a dietician, nutritionist, health coach or your family physician to discuss how you can manage this dietary issue. You may find spicy food isn’t the problem. Rather, you might discover an underlying health problem which is being irritated by the spicy foods in your diet.

As we’ve seen, spicy foods can lead to pain and discomfort if you have specific health conditions. Therefore, while it’s good to avoid foods that bother you, it’s also important to learn why these foods are problematic. In doing so, you can discover any unseen health problems and take steps to heal them.

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