Suddenly Craving Spicy Food? Here's What It Could Mean

Spicy food

We hear a lot about sweet tooths, and if you have one yourself, we can't blame you. On the other hand, some like it hot—as in, they adore spicy food. Regardless of which camp you fall into (if any), you may find yourself with an unexpected, uncontrollable spicy food craving.

"Why am I craving spicy food all of a sudden?" you ask. It's a good question. Food cravings are often our body's way of turning up the heat (or volume) about a deficiency or want.

"Our cravings can be a sign of what our bodies may be lacking and what they may need," explains Jennifer Hernandez, RD, a registered dietitian with Plant-Powered Kidneys. "We will want to pay attention to this and see if there is something we are lacking. This does not mean that every craving should immediately be fulfilled. We should evaluate that feeling and make sure we are giving our bodies what we need."

So, what does a spicy food craving mean? Seasoned experts gave their hot takes (er, insights).

Related: Suddenly Craving Peanut Butter? Here Are 5 Things It Could Mean

Why Am I Craving Spicy Food? 6 Possible Reasons

1. Blame it on your hormones

While some early signs of pregnancy are myths, there may be something to the spicy food craving one.

"Craving spicy food during pregnancy is quite common and might stem from hormonal fluctuations or simply a desire for intensity in taste," says Kelsey Costa, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Dietitian Insights. "These cravings are usually harmless, but it's essential for expectant mothers to monitor the quantity and type of spicy foods consumed to avoid digestive discomfort."

Costa points to research on pregnancy and food cravings from 2016. Though most people wanted something sweet, 3.3% of people who said they experienced food cravings were hankering for a spicy dish like chili or curry.

Even if you're not pregnant (or menstruating), you may be experiencing other hormonal shifts that prompt spicy food cravings. "Leptin and serotonin are hormones that can influence your desire to crave spicy food," adds Julia Zumpano, RD, of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Human Nutrition.

2. You're sick

Not feeling too hot? You may start craving spicy food. "Spicy foods may help clear nasal congestion," Zumpano says. "They can also increase your body temperature, which can help if you have the chills due to fighting off a bug."

Floored? Here's how spicy foods might help you relieve a stuffy nose. "Capsaicin acts as a natural decongestant and may improve symptoms related to nonallergic rhinitis," Costa says.

That said, satisfying your spicy food craving won't double as a cure for the common cold. "However, it's wise to use spicy foods as part of a broader cold management strategy rather than the sole remedy," Costa explains. "It is important to ensure the body receives adequate hydration and balanced nutrition for a speedy recovery."

3. You're overheated

Spicy foods may be your body telling you, "Hey, it's getting hot in here."

"Yes, spicy food can actually be craved when you’re hot," Hernandez says, citing a 2015 report. "The capsaicin in spicy foods has been shown to help regulate our temperature."

Costa shared similar information, adding that spicy foods, especially those with capsaicin, may promote sweating. "[Sweating]...cools the body down," she explains. "While this isn't inherently problematic, staying hydrated is essential if consuming spicy foods in hot conditions."

4. It's a mental or emotional thing

Sometimes, cravings are a clue to your mental rather than physical health. "Emotional eating, more specifically feeling sad or anxious, can often lead to cravings for foods that provide immediate, short-term relief of the emotion," Zumpano says.

With spicy food, capsaicin again takes center stage. "Capsaicin can release endorphins, which help combat those feelings. The food never actually solves the problem," Zumpano continues. "Work with a health provider to help you address and deal with the emotion properly to avoid emotional eating...Consider a non-food related way to soothe emotions such as breathwork, massage, a hot bath, calling a friend and taking a walk."

5. Spicy food is part of your culture

"Growing up in cultures where spicy foods are prevalent can lead to a preference and craving for such flavors," says Trista Best, RD.

There's no problem in satisfying these cravings—just make sure to pay attention to your overall diet too. "Over-reliance on any single type of cuisine can lead to nutrient deficiencies or dietary imbalances," Best shares. "People should explore a variety of culinary traditions to ensure they are getting a wide range of nutrients."

6. You're bored

Variety is the spice of life, right? Your diet may be lacking excitement. "Craving spicy foods may stem from a desire for culinary variety and flavor complexity," Best says.

Related: ‘I’m a Gastroenterologist—This Is the Snack I Eat Every Single Day To Support My Gut Health'

What Deficiency Causes Spicy Cravings?

There's a chance you may not be deficient in any nutrient. "There is a lack of research linking specific nutrient deficiencies to spicy food cravings," Costa explains. "Rather, certain hormonal imbalances or psychological factors are more likely to influence such desires. However, it's essential to understand that while cravings for spicy foods may not directly indicate a specific nutrient deficiency, they might reflect broader dietary patterns or needs."

Speaking to a doctor or dietitian can help.

Are Spicy Foods Bad For You?

It depends. "Spicy foods are not bad for you unless they're highly processed," Zumpano says. "The spices themselves, meaning peppers and spices that come from peppers, provide anti-inflammatory compound."

However, she says some spicy foods get added to processed items like chips, vegetable oils, fried foods and processed meats.

The rub? "These foods can create more inflammation due to the other ingredients found in those foods," Zumpano adds.

Why Do Some People Crave Spicy Food When They're Stressed?

Spicy food cravings can be a red flag that you're stressed. "Craving and consuming spicy food amidst stress can act as a psychological distraction and coping mechanism, where the physical sensation of pain and subsequent endorphin release serves to alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety for a short period," Costa says.

It's best to try to cope with stress in different ways. "For individuals who feel overwhelmed with stress, rather than using food to cope, consulting with a qualified mental health professional is strongly recommended," Costa adds.

Related: Here's To Know About Your Sudden Urge To Drink All The Milk

How Much Spicy Food Is Too Much?

It's not black and white. "This depends on your tolerance," Hernandez says. "Some people eat a lot of spicy food and then experience GI distress. If you experience after-eating effects like heartburn or stomach aches, you may have had too much spicy food."

What does GI distress feel like? "You should not feel a burning sensation," Hernandez says. "This is when you know it's too much."

Next up: New Research Says This Super Popular Drink Could Cause Liver Damage—Here's What a Hepatologist Wants You to Know