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Lupus and Spicy Food: 3 Things To Know

Medically reviewed by Lisa Booth, RDN
Written by Suzanne Mooney
Posted on July 28, 2023

If your favorite salsa, curry, or other spicy dish suddenly starts mouth pain, burning sensations in your throat, or stomach upset, you might wonder if lupus is to blame. Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease, commonly causes symptoms including fatigue, joint pain, headaches, and malar rash (a butterfly-shaped rash on the nose and cheeks). But can it cause a reaction to spicy food? Maybe. But something else could be causing the new and uncomfortable sensation you are experiencing after your favorite meals.

Keep reading for three things to know about lupus and spicy food. Keep in mind this is scientifically backed yet general information. For specific questions about your condition, schedule an appointment with your health care provider.

1. Spicy Food Affects People With Lupus Differently

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, lupus — the most common type of which is systemic lupus erythematosus — can cause an array of symptoms, and the illness affects people differently. When you notice what could be a new lupus symptom or treatment side effect, like a change in how your body reacts to spicy food, you might look to others for feedback. However, just as lupus can affect people differently, so can spicy food.

Here is how some MyLupusTeam members describe their experiences:

  • “Spicy food gives me a burning sensation.”
  • “I used to be able to eat spicy food with no problem, but now it seems like even the slightest bit of spice instantly causes indigestion.”
  • “Spicy food makes my butterfly rash come out, and my cheeks and lips swell.”
  • “I have found that spicy food — which I love — is too hot for me to eat now. It sets my mouth on fire like crazy.”

While some report a change in how their body responds to spicy foods, others continue to eat spicy food without issue.

“I eat spicy food almost daily,” said one MyLupusTeam member. “It doesn’t seem to be a trigger for me.” Another said, “I’m fine with spicy food, but some processed foods cause inflammation for me the next day.”

There is no normal lupus experience. There is only what is normal for you. If you notice a change in how your body reacts to spicy foods or any other changes to your health, seek medical advice from a rheumatologist or other health care professional.

2. You Might Be Experiencing Heartburn

Heartburn caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is common in people with lupus and other autoimmune conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis. Spicy food can make heartburn worse because it irritates the esophagus.

If you experience heartburn or acid reflux after eating, consider keeping a food journal. Tracking what and when you eat and how your body responds can help you and your care team identify which foods or habits are causing your discomfort.

If you are experiencing heartburn, your doctor may recommend:

  • Taking over-the-counter antacids
  • Limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol
  • Eating smaller meals throughout the day
  • Staying upright after eating
  • Avoiding foods or drinks that make your heartburn worse — such as spicy food

Heartburn is often uncomfortable, but if it’s occasional, it likely won’t cause any major damage. However, it could also be a sign of other health issues. Also, people with GERD — which is heartburn caused by chronic acid reflux — may be more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, especially if they have a history of abnormal cholesterol levels or high blood pressure. For an accurate diagnosis and treatment, talk to your doctor.

3. Another Ingredient Could Be To Blame

What appears to be a reaction to spicy food may be a reaction to another ingredient used in your favorite spicy meals. Health experts believe that garlic, for example, may cause your immune system to go into overdrive, increasing disease activity by affecting your white blood cells. Some health experts recommend that people living with lupus avoid garlic when possible, given that the condition is an autoimmune disease that already puts your immune system in overdrive.

Alfalfa sprouts are less likely than garlic to be in spicy dishes, but they, too, can be inflammatory for autoimmune conditions like lupus and should be avoided.

Although there’s no official lupus diet, eating anti-inflammatory foods — such as those found in a Mediterranean diet — may help you avoid or reduce the frequency of lupus flares and rashes. They may also reduce your risk of heart disease when eaten as part of a balanced diet.

Popular anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Blueberries, spinach, collard greens, and other fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants
  • Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and other fatty fish that contains omega-3 fatty acids
  • Rice, quinoa, and whole grain cereals and bread that are high in fiber and antioxidants

The next time you crave a pot of your favorite spicy soup or side dish, consider leaving out the garlic and experimenting with turmeric, legumes, spinach, and other lupus-friendly foods. If you feel better, maybe the issue wasn’t the spice after all.

For lupus diet tips, talk to a dietitian or a doctor specializing in rheumatology.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On MyLupusTeam, the social network for people with lupus and their loved ones, more than 223,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lupus.

Have you noticed your body responding differently to spicy food since your lupus diagnosis? Share your experience in the comments below or start a conversation on your Activities page.

    Posted on July 28, 2023
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    Lisa Booth, RDN studied foods and nutrition at San Diego State University, in California and obtained a registered dietitian nutritionist license in 2008. Learn more about her here.
    Suzanne Mooney writes about people, pets, health and wellness, and travel. Learn more about her here.

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