A Memphis teen's mom thought spicy snacks led to her daughter's gallbladder surgery. Is that true?

A Memphis teen's mom thought spicy snacks led to her daughter's gallbladder surgery. Is that true?
Posted at 1:33 PM, Jul 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-24 14:33:11-04

When a Memphis teen had her gallbladder removed, her mother believed that spicy snacks were the cause.

"She was eating big bags and would take them to school with her," Rene Craighead told CNN affiliate WREG, underscoring her daughter's taste for spicy chips, including Takis.

Her daughter, also named Rene, told the station that she ate roughly four bags of hot snacks every week. The 17-year-old high school student experienced stomach pains that resulted in surgeons removing her gallbladder, an operation known as a cholecystectomy.


But some doctors reacted with a bit of skepticism about spicy foods being the culprit.

"I've never heard that spiciness or spices can do that," said Dr. Peter Mattei, a general pediatric surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who was not involved in Craighead's care.

The hot sensation of spicy foods comes from a substance called capsaicin, and experts are unaware of strong evidence linking it to gallbladder problems like gallstones.

"We know there are certain things that stimulate the gallbladder, and the main thing is fatty foods," Mattei said. "A lot of spicy foods are also high in fat."

The gallbladder is a small organ that sits just under the liver and stores bile, which digests fat. The fat we eat can stimulate the gallbladder to squeeze some of that bile into our intestines. But gallstones can block the flow of that digestive fluid, and the contraction of the gallbladder can be intensely painful.

There may be a genetic component to gallstones in addition to what we eat, Mattei said. Women are also known to get gallstones more often than men, and obesity may be another contributing factor. But the science behind why some people get gallstones, and gallbladder problems more broadly, is not entirely set in stone.

"If you have gallstones and you have symptoms from your gallstone, then we usually recommend surgery to remove the gallbladder," Mattei said. He added that this can prevent a future risk of "acute inflammation of the gallbladder or pancreatitis, which is even worse."

A statement from Takis said, "We assure you that Takis are safe to eat, but should be enjoyed in moderation as part of a well-balanced diet." The statement also said that the ingredients comply with regulations set by the US Food and Drug Administration. "Always check the serving size before snacking," the statement added.

Spicy foods were also thought to cause ulcers in the past, but Mattei called this "old-fashioned thinking." Most ulcers are now known to be caused by a bacterium known as H. pylori, whose spread is still unclear to researchers, as well as a reaction to some anti-inflammatory medications.

Mattei said that that doesn't mean Craighead's testimony should be dismissed by those in the medical profession, who often rely on patients and family members to get a better understanding of their health issues and identify avenues for future research. But he doesn't advise making snap judgments.

Otherwise, he said, "you miss out on a lot of enjoyable things in life -- like spicy foods."