Are chiles a cause of ulcers or a cure for them? For centuries, there have been two schools of thought on the subject. The first holds that chiles produce excess stomach acid, which eats holes in the wall of the stomach and duodenum. This is why spicy diets have long been forbidden for ulcer sufferers. The other school of thought holds that the capsaicin in chiles has the power to cure ulcers.
Now, thanks to new discoveries about the origin of ulcers, scientists are leaning toward the second school of thought. This is because the source of these ulcers has now been traced to the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which lives in the lining of the stomach wall and migrates down to the duodenum. Half of adults older than age 60 have the bacterium in their body, but only a very small percentage of them develop ulcers. The reason the bacterium selectively causes ulcers is not known, but the method of attack is theorized to be two-pronged. First, the bacterium attacks the stomach wall and causes an perforation, or ulcer. Then the bacterium seems to stimulate the production of hydrochloric acid and pepsin, a digestive enzyme, and this combination causes the pain.
“It turns out that diet has absolutely nothing to do with ulcers,” says Dr. Robert Ganz, a Minneapolis gastroenterologist. “Alcohol has nothing to do with ulcers. Smoking probably has nothing to do with ulcers.” And they have nothing to do with stress, coffee, or fried food. A mystery, though, is why ulcers are more common among people in lower socioeconomic levels.
Fortunately, H. pylori can be destroyed with a two or three week treatment of various antibiotics combined with antacid drugs such as Zantac. Medical researchers are even working on a vaccine. But what about chiles as a treatment for ulcers?
At first such a cure sounds horrible, like placing cayenne powder on an open wound. But that is precisely what cayenne is used for in herbal medicine. The capsaicin in the powder has antibacterial properties; this has been demonstrated with Tabasco sauce killing the bacteria present in raw oysters. It also fights pain after the initial burning, which is why the capsaicin creams relieve arthritis pain.