The Spicy Food Paradox

As you may already know, dental caries (cavities) are caused by bacteria-eating carbohydrates that get stuck in teeth and leave acid behind. This acid then erodes away at the enamel of teeth, causing cavities that, if left untreated, could result in more serious dental issues.

Luckily the body has some protection against bacteria and acid in the form of saliva. The saliva acts as a sort of mouth rinse that washes away debris and makes the mouth less acidic. In fact, many people chew sugar-free gum for this very reason. The gum stimulates saliva flow and helps clean the mouth.

But there might be other ways to stimulate saliva flow. Recently, researchers confirmed what many spice aficionados would tell you, that spicy foods provide extra salivary stimulation. More specifically, they found that capsaicin, the chemical that makes chili peppers spicy, stimulates salivary glands in human and animals, even in dysfunctional transplanted salivary glands.

But before you go bite a chili pepper for your teeth’s sake, it’s worth remembering that, for some people, spicy food might trigger increased acidity in the mouth. Some people suffer from a condition called acid reflux (more commonly known as heartburn), where the acid from the stomach climbs through the esophagus and into the mouth, making it a more acidic environment. If acid is the culprit behind tooth decay, then it should come as no surprise that people who have acid reflux are also more likely to have enamel erosion.

This paradox of spicy food stimulating the salivary glands but also potentially causing acid reflux can be confusing, but if you consult with your dentist you can get a better idea of your risk. Don’t hesitate to ask at your next appointment!