Capsaicin - Why We Love the Burn

Capsaicin - Why We Love the Burn!

Chili peppers have been present in our diet for thousands of years. Though scientists still debate about the exact time capsicums started to be domesticated, one thing is clear: chilli peppers' origins can be traced back to South America, where the ancestors of the present-day Peruvian, Bolivian, and Ecuadorian people fell in love with them first.

We are sure you have heard the generalization that the hotter a place is, the hotter its food is; which is true to a certain extent. This assumption has several different origins. 

The first: eating hot peppers makes us sweat, and sweating is the mechanism our body uses to regulate its temperature. So we provoke transpiration, to enjoy the evaporative cooling effect that perspiration brings.
"The reason behind why, even in modern times, we crave the burning sensation from hot chillis is actually tied to the effects that capsaicin has in our brain." 

Another possible explanation, and a rather obvious one, is that warm climates offer hot peppers the right environment to grow and proliferate. It’s only natural, then, that people living in these areas were the first to run into them and use them in their cuisine. These hunter-gatherers must have been curious about the tiny berries they found and began experimenting with them. Our ancestors lived on a starch and protein-rich diet and discovered that adding chilis to the food made it taste more interesting and flavorful. The irritation of capsaicin also stimulates the mouth to produce more saliva, which contains amylase, an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates. So, the chilis made meals less boring and food easier to digest.

But perhaps the most exciting theory on why we humans started to add hot peppers to our diets thousands of years ago comes from the presence of our old friend capsaicin and its natural antimicrobial qualities. Since a hotter climate makes food spoil faster, adding a lot of spice helps prevent the food from going bad, so chilis were used as an ancient preservative agent.

Though all these theories might hold the answer to why we started eating them years ago, the reason behind why, even in modern times, we crave the burning sensation from hot chillis is actually tied to the effects that capsaicin has in our brain. Now, let's dive deeper into how eating hot peppers releases both euphoric painkillers and a sense of reward and pleasure.


Why we crave the burn

We know the first taste of a hot pepper can be rough, but don't worry; you're not really burning up. The capsaicin present in chili peppers only mimics heat. So, how do you trick the body into thinking it's on fire? Capsaicin activates a specific receptor from the vallinoid family; the TRPV1. Receptors are a group of specialised cells that act as sensors and are used by the human body to give information about the outside world. Some of these receptors, called ‘transient receptor potential’ (TRP), are involved in the perception of extreme temperatures and play a role in inflammation and pain hypersensitivity. David Julius, an American physiologist, and his team were the ones responsible for finding the specific relationship between capsaicin and TRPV1, shedding light on our anatomic reaction to capsaicin.

Normally, TRPV1 is stimulated by actual, physical heat sensations. When TRPV1 senses that stimulus, the nervous system relays to the brain that the body is being exposed to dangerous temperatures and needs to respond. Capsaicin in peppers also perfectly binds with TRPV1, mimicking dangerous temperatures and causing the same relay transmission to the brain. The brain is fooled into believing tissue is being burned, even though nothing is actually being damaged by the capsaicin itself.

Now that the biological reaction to capsaicin is explained, many of you might still be wondering: “I am tricking my brain into thinking I'm getting burned on purpose? Why does it feel so good, then?” It all has to do with how our brains deal with these types of stress. When a painful sensation is triggered, the brain responds by releasing endorphins and dopamine. Endorphins are the body’s natural way of relieving pain by blocking the nerve’s ability to transmit pain signals, and dopamine is responsible for a sense of reward and pleasure. That’s why, for some people, eating spicy food brings about a sense of euphoria – like a ‘runner’s high’.


How to overcome a chili pepper burn

We mentioned it before: capsaicin affects every animal species, except birds. So what do you do if your tissue comes in contact with capsaicin unintentionally and you want to stop the burning sensation? We'll be honest with you: once capsaicin binds to TRPV1, there is little you can do. You can, however, take steps to ensure no more capsaicin-TRPV1 links happen. First and foremost, remember that water isn’t a good remedy to overcome the heat. As we covered in our first chapter, capsaicin dissolves in fats and oils, not water. So, dairy is your best bet. The casein present in cold milk or ice cream can soothe the burning sensation. The cold temperature will also help loads. Plus, ice cream. Just give it a few moments and the heat will fade.