You sit down to eat a fresh, home-cooked Mexican dinner. You start with tortilla chips and salsa (Happy Tomato Fresh Salsa, perhaps?). The salsa is a red color contrasted with bits of green peppers and cilantro. You take a tortilla chip and dip it into the salsa. As you bite into the chip and begin to chew, you feel a pleasant, yet almost uncomfortable, burning sensation travel from your tongue to the roof of your mouth, down your throat, and even on to the tip of your lips. As you continue to eat more chips and salsa, the feeling intensifies and you find yourself reaching for your iced tea to help quench the fire inside of your mouth. A bead of sweat forms on your brow and a thin trickle of mucus teases its way to the tip of your nostril. Despite feeling like your insides are on fire, you find yourself enjoying the sensation. But why? What is it about the peppers in that salsa that make this happen? It’s the pepper’s principle heat activator capsaicin that causes this cycle of pain and pleasure.
Capsaicin is what you would call the “active ingredient” of chili peppers. It gets its name from after the Capsicum flowering plant genus its host peppers belong to. Peppers produce the capsaicin as a secondary metabolite to protect themselves from fungi and, ironically, mammals. The burning and irritating that contact with capsaicin causes to invading party’s extremities is intended to teach them a lesson. A lesson that, thankfully, mankind was too stubborn to learn.
One might ponder the reasoning behind including a pepper into the human diet that causes immediate irritation and burning. You would not eat a porcupine or use poison ivy as toilet paper, so why would you choose to consume something that obviously causes discomfort? Well there are many reasons why. The most obvious, hence the one I will spend the least time writing about is that capsaicin-producing peppers are DELICIOUS!
Now that we have the obvious out of the way, let’s look at some of the other reasons why we would eat something that sets our mouths on fire:
When you take a bite into that chip and feel the burning caused by the capsaicin, your brain begins releasing massive amounts of endorphins to deal with the heat. This trigger is because your brain registers the burning sensation caused by the peppers as pain. The endorphins will give you a naturally pleasant mood, which was already pretty pleasant to begin with if you were eating some delicious Mexican cuisine!
The way your body reacts to capsaicin serves as a means to clear your sinus cavities and relieve congestion experienced because of a cold or allergies. One of the first things you may notice after eating a blazing hot pepper is that your nose begins to run. This is your body’s way to try to clear out the irritating capsaicin. If you are stuffy and feel like your face pipes are all clogged up, try eating something really spicy!
Capsaicin also acts as a pain reliever. Some researchers believe that capsaicin reduces the amount of Substance P, which is a key transmitter of pain to the brain, in the nerves. Substance P has been linked to headaches, whether they be in the form of sinus headaches, cluster headaches, or migraines. People that suffer from arthritis are also found to have higher amounts of substance P in the fluid surrounding their joints. Capsaicin is believed to be so effective at reducing pain from arthritis, that you can purchase topical creams or patches made with capsaicin for pain relief.
Don’t listen to what they say, it’s good for your digestive tract! We’ve all joked about things being hotter on the way out than they were on the way in or “Montezuma’s Revenge” from eating Mexican food, but there’s a lot of evidence that suggests the contrary. Capsaicin is believed to stimulate the production of gastric mucus, which ensures a more thorough breakdown of foods in the stomach. Capsaicin also is known to fight bad bacteria in the intestines that may in fact cause diarrhea. In your face, Montezuma’s Revenge!