Why does spicy food make me hiccup?

12 April 2016


Red chilli peppers



I've observed that whenever I eat chilli (hot) foods such as hot wings or hot/periperi curry, they invoke persistent hiccups every single time. Is this an anomaly with my anatomy or is there a scientific basis for this?


We put Lebohang's question to Clemency Booth, who started by explaining what hiccups are...

Clemency - Hiccups are produced by repeated involuntary contractions of a hemidiaphragm, that's one half of your diaphragm and your intercostal muscles, that's the muscles between your ribs. This muscle contraction results in a sudden inspiration and forces the glottis shut, thereby generating the characteristic hic sound. Hiccups are an involuntary reflex which don't involve the brain, which means that we don't have to think about what we are doing, they just happen. Any process that interferes with the neural pathway'sinvolved in hiccups can trigger them.

Connie - Okay. So, a reflex reaction of our ribs and diaphragm pushes air up forcing the closing the glottis or the space between our vocal cords. Now that's all well and good but what about spicy food and is this even a phenomenon? On Facebook, Christina Alegria said "no hiccups here", whilst a straw poll in the Naked Scientists office suggested a two to one ratio - no hiccups to hiccups.

Clemency - The most common cause of hiccups is detention of the stomach by a large meal. This is thought to put external pressure on the diaphragm, irritating it and causing it to contract. So it may be that those of us that tend to eat quickly, such as when we've ordered a delicious spicy takeaway, may be more likely to develop hiccups. It is also well known that spicy food can cause heartburn or acid reflux, and this has also been linked to hiccups. There are two hypotheses of why this may happen. The first is that spicy food causes us to belch and this again causes distention of the stomach and irritation of the diaphragm. The other feasible cause could be that spicy food increases acid production in the stomach, irritating the nerves that are involved in the hiccup reflex.

Connie - So may be it's speedy gobbling or a propensity to heartburn but once we have them, please tell us there's a cure.

Clemency - Although there is no sure cure for hiccups, there are many things that are said to help. These include: holding your breath, scaring someone, or even biting lemons. My mum always told me that drinking out of the opposite side of the cup would help, but I'm not sure this ever worked. I would advise a combination of all techniques to find out what works for you.


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