I imagine the pearly gates slowly opening and gleaming upon the Heavens in the same way the doors to my refrigerator unveil twinkling jars of salsa and shiny bottles of hot sauce. In high school, I kept a bottle of Frank's RedHot in my locker at all times. Every night, I sleep in Sriracha boxers and a matching t-shirt. Eggs are incomplete without a generous scoop of habanero salsa on top.
Yet, the rest of my body does not react as pleasantly to spicy foods as my taste buds do. Stomach acid creeps up my esophagus while my lips tingle and my nose runs. Shortly after, my insides cramp up and it hits me: I really need to poop. The question is, why does spicy food make you poop?
Why the heck does this happen?
It starts out with a compound called capsaicin. Capsaicin is the component in peppers that makes them spicy. It's also an irritant, which is why you feel a burning sensation when you eat something spicy. Specifically, capsaicin binds to and activates your TRPV1 receptors. TRPV1 has a lot of functions in your body, but one of its main duties is regulating temperature. When TRPV1 detects high temperatures – like from capsaicin – it signals to your brain to stimulate pain.
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TRPV1 receptors are not just located in your mouth. They're scattered all throughout your body, including your gastro-intestinal (GI) system. When capsaicin triggers the TRPV1 receptors in your intestines, it makes your GI system cramp up. Basically, your GI system is stimulated more than normal and gets things going faster – making you need to poop ASAP.
Moreover, your anus actually has TRPV1 receptors too. Whatever capsaicin is not absorbed by your body during digestion is later pooped out. That's why it may have burned last time you pooped out spicy curry.
If you're planning on ingesting spicy food, I recommend locating the nearest restroom in preparation for a rapid digestion. Also, remember that your anus has TRPV1 receptors too, so whatever you feel going in, you'll feel going out. Be kind to your butt.
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Thank you to Christine Dones, GI Endoscopy RN at Advocate South Suburban Hospital, for setting the record straight on why spicy food makes you poop.