No matter what spice level you can handle, we’ve all eaten spicy food that’s a little too hot. Whether it’s from sprinkling a little too much hot sauce over your meal or ordering too ambitiously in an Indian restaurant, the sensation is not the most pleasant.
Your mouth starts to burn, your throat creates mucus, and your nose and eyes start to run. If you’ve ever wondered why this is, then look no further than this article.
Why does our body react like this to spice?
A common theme of the body’s reaction to spice is the generation of fluid, from our eyes, mouth, nose, throat, stomach, and parts of the intestine. The reason the body reacts like this is to flush out the offensive spice, just like a hose spraying the dirt off a car. This extra fluid in the gastrointestinal tract is why some people develop a stomachache or diarrhea after eating spicy food.
The plant compound capsaicin is to blame for the flaming hot heat of spicy chili peppers. Studies have shown this molecule binds to pain receptors, causing a unique type of “excitation.” “This excitation leads to the feeling of heat or burning pain, blood vessel dilatation, reddening of the skin, and body temperature elevation,” says Anthony Dickenson, author of a study looking into the effects of capsaicin.
What are the health benefits of spicy food?
Dickenson’s study also revealed some of the positives of spice, showing capsaicin could be used as a painkiller once the initial “excitation” has died down. “There is also a high-dose [capsaicin] patch that makes the pain-sensing nerve endings pull back from the application site—sort of escaping the insult—and this can lead to several weeks of pain relief,” he says.
Other studies have also shown that spice can help our bodies out in numerous ways. One concluded that intake of spicy foods is linked to lower mortality rates, possibly through improving heart and metabolic function. Another found evidence that capsaicin is linked to preventing kinds of mutations linked to cancer and promoting healthy cell activity. A small study also found spicy food may help burn visceral fat which builds up around organs and is linked to several diseases.
Why do humans enjoy the pain of spicy food?
Something that scientists are a little unsure of is why humans enjoy the burning sensation that accompanies spicy foods. A popular explanation is that we like to engage in “benign masochism,” where negative sensations and emotions are enjoyed because they know no real harm will come from them. This thrill-seeking behavior can be seen all over the place in theme parks, scary movie screenings, and skydiving centers.
Another theory is this sort of pain helps us prepare for real-world challenges, the ability to tolerate unpleasant experiences could make us more resilient. Or maybe the reason is more straightforward, that the chili peppers offer a large range of benefits and nutrients, so we’ve evolved to want to incorporate them into our diets.