Why is spicy food good?

Why Some People Just Can’t Handle Spicy Food

“It’s not hot enough unless I’m dripping sweat as I eat it,” a friend of mine would tell the server at our favorite Mexican restaurant in college, as he ordered the secret, off-menu hot sauces for his burrito. Both in awe and disgust, I’d watch him pour threatening levels of neon orange and green sauces on his food, as I relished the buzzy head rush from the standard medium-level red salsa.

As someone whose spicy food tolerance maxes out at sriracha — admittedly a tame fire compared to the ghost pepper sauces my friend savors — I wondered what’s responsible for our vastly different tastes. Basically, why do certain people flat-out obsess over spicy food? And what about, at the opposite end of the spectrum, people who can’t handle any heat at all?

The heat may be all in your head

Eating peppers feels physically painful for people who shun spicy food. But Chef Bill Phillips, a spicy foods expert and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America, says the suffering is all in their heads. “Although you feel like it’s burning , it’s actually a trick of the mind,” he says, adding that spicy foods do not cause any physical harm to a well-functioning digestive system.

The chef explains that fiery food tastes hot because chemical molecules, such as capsaicin, excite pain receptors on your tongue that are linked to the sensation of temperature, not because it’s burning off your tastebuds. “It’s more of a sensation of heat than something physical. Interestingly, spearmint actually hits on the same receptor, creating a sense of cold.”

Are people born with a spice-hating gene?

Chef Phillips says spicy food lovers aren’t born with an affinity for hot sauce. Rather, it’s acquired over time, as capsaicin and other spicy food molecules deplete a neurotransmitter called substance P, which is responsible for sending pain signals to the brain.

This could explain why people from some countries, such as India or Mexico, seem to have a naturally higher tolerance for hot foods — they’ve been eating them from a very young age. “Children in Mexico actually snack on jalapeno-laced lollipops,” says Chef Phillips. Once people have become desensitized to the heat, they begin to appreciate other qualities of hot pepper and spicy treats just as much. “Some chilies have tropical fruit flavors, while others have tobacco and leather flavors,” he adds. “When you eat chilies, it releases similar endorphins to a runner’s high. You start to miss a meal that doesn’t have that spice.”

Illustration by Angelica Alzona

Spicy food is the best food, but between the painful capsaicinoids, the bloating from drinking too much water, and the inevitable sweating, spicy food can also be uncomfortable to eat. Here are some tips to enjoy the spice without the bloating, sweat, and tears.

Why We Love Spicy Food

Pain is part of the reason spicy food is so damn good. The sensation that your ears are bleeding only adds to the experience, making your curry or buffalo wings or salsa not just tasty, but flavorful.

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What’s the difference between taste and flavor? Flavor depends on three factors: taste (whether something is sour, salty, or sweet), olfactory sense (the smell of the food), and trigeminal sense—the way your nerves sense that food. Capsaicin, the active component in hot peppers, stimulates your pain receptors, making you think the food is hot. Of course, you’re not actually being burned; it’s the perception of pain.

Capsaicin can also make you feel like you’re high. When your mouth’s pain receptors are activated, they cause your body to release dopamine and endorphins (you have these receptors in your butt, too). This whole process explains why we love the experience of spicy food, not just the taste. The perceived pain of capsaicin adds to the flavor. Pain isn’t a bug, it’s a feature!

As much as this sensation adds to the experience, though, the discomfort can put the brakes on your ability to enjoy the meal. You take a swig of water after every bite, and halfway through, you’re too bloated and miserable to go on. You want the flavor, but you want to be able to actually enjoy it.

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It seems like a culinary Catch-22, but there are a few ways to get the best of both worlds.

Build Your Tolerance

It’s not just a myth, you can indeed build a tolerance for spicy food. When you repeatedly expose your pain receptors to capsaicin, they physically change, allowing you to up your spice game.

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Discover magazine explains:

When exposed to capsaicin, these receptors open to allow in sodium and calcium ions, causing the receptors to transmit that hot signal to the brain. However, with repeated short-term exposure to capsaicin, those calcium ions essentially close the receptor door behind them, inhibiting further transmission of pain signals. Over the long term, with repeated spicy meals, the whole nerve ending starts to degrade in a way scientists are still trying to understand.

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The nerves can grow back, though, which is good, but it also means you need a regular diet of spicy food to maintain your tolerance, Discover explains.

The answer here is pretty simple: eat spicy food more often. Serious Eats suggests adding spice gradually. Sprinkle some red pepper flakes into your soup. Add more black pepper to your meals. For those that really can’t do spicy, one health practitioner even suggested spiking ketchup with a couple of drops of Tabasco.

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Use the Right Coolants

Of course, when you build your tolerance, you risk losing some of the flavor that comes with your trigeminal sense. So if you want to keep your receptors intact (or you’re haven’t built up a tolerance yet), there are ways to deal with the heat rather than grow numb to it. Namely, you want to find the right coolants to ease the perceived pain. And it’s not water, soda, or juice. It’s more like milk.

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Capsaicin is fat-soluble, not water-soluble. In a paper published in Pharmacological Reviews, scientists explained:

Because capsaicin is not water-soluble, alcohols and other organic solvents are used to solubilize capsaicin in topical preparations and sprays. This liposolubility is likely to explain why an oral excess of capsaicin in food is not alleviated by drinking water, whereas a yogurt-based drink, such as a lassi, is able to remove the vanilloid from the mouth.

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Over at Thrillist, writer Michelle No tested ten different coolants and found whole milk and coconut water to be a couple of the most effective remedies, too.

Other food items that can extinguish the fire in your mouth: sugar, rice, sour cream, honey, and acids like lime.

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The reason we bloat on water over a spicy meal is because we drink so damn much of it and it’s not effective. Swap out your coolant and it will take less liquid to ease the pain.

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Slow Down

Finally, here’s a simple idea for enjoying the heat: eat slowly. Or at least slower. As The Kitchn points out, the more capsaicin you eat, the stronger the reaction, so when you slow down, you maintain a “steady but tolerable amount” in your body.

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The effect of spicy food only lasts for about 15 minutes or so, so if you’re snacking, it might help to just be mindful of this. Let the heat pass, then go back for more.

As much as you may love the sensation of capsaicin hitting your tongue, the discomfort can take over and make it impossible to enjoy your meal. The trick is to find a balance between actually scarfing down the tasty food and making yourself miserable because the spice is just too much. These tips should be able to help you find that balance—just the right amount of pain to add to the flavor, rather than take it over completely.

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People who like spicy food are having more sex

If you prefer spicier food, there’s a good chance you also lead a spicier life, according to new research.

A study into the palates and spicy food preferences of 2,000 Americans examined the correlation between taste buds and lifestyles and found heat on the plate can mean more heat in the bedroom.

In fact, those who listed their spice preference as hot have almost double the amount of sex than those who said they don’t like any spice at all on their food (5.3 times per month to 3.2 times per month frolicking under the sheets.)

The new survey, conducted by OnePoll on behalf of hot sauce brand El Yucateco, asked Americans a series of questions about their personality and then split the results by how spicy they prefer their food (none, mild, medium, and hot) and found it’s not just in the bedroom that spicier palates are more active.

Results showed spicy palates could arguably correlate to a sense of adventure with those marking themselves as hot on the spice range more likely to say they love roller coasters, listen to loud music, and even drive fast down a winding road.

In fact, hot and spicy food lovers were 45 percent more likely to have traveled out of the country, and more likely to have also gone skydiving, gone on a rafting trip, and gone scuba diving.

Spicy food lovers are even six times more likely (2 percent to 12 percent) to have gone bungee jumping than those who don’t like any spice.

Results showed people who enjoy their food to be hot were the most likely to rate their happiness level at a perfect ten than any other spicy preference, and that also goes with how happy they are in their current job.

And those who liked spicier food did also show higher scores for being sociable and extroverted, with hot food enjoyers more likely to say they love meeting new people and more likely to rate themselves as a good public speaker.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is how on top of their life people who prefer hot spice tend to be, when compared to those who don’t.

The hot spice lovers were very goal oriented and 29 percent more likely to have a dream they’re currently working towards.

Health was another factor that came into play, with hot spice lovers twice as likely to rate themselves a five out of five on having healthy habits, as well as exercising more on average.

Said a spokesperson for El Yucateco: “It’s no surprise to us to see the results from this poll. Our interactions with our loyal fan base indicates that they are adventurous, outgoing and live life to its fullest.”

Preference No spice Hot spice
Personality traits Shy, Humble, Anxious Adventurous, Charming, Optimistic, Sociable, Hot-tempered
Hobbies Reading, Shopping, Eating out, Watching TV Working out, Cooking, Camping out
Music genres Country Jazz, Rock
Movie genres Drama, Romance, Rom-com Horror, Thriller, Action

Why Some People Love Spicy Food and Others Can’t Handle It

Do you like spicy food? The answer is one of the culinary world’s great litmus tests—probably even more divisive than whether you think cilantro tastes like soap. But no matter how many cartoon chilies you like to see on the menu next to your dinner selection, there’s a reason why you prefer your food that way. What’s going on? We asked some RDs to explain why some people love spicy food and others don’t.

What happens to your body when you eat spicy food?

First, it helps to understand why food feels spicy: it’s thanks to a class of compounds called capsaicinoids. “These compounds give peppers their heat, but when you eat any spicy pepper, your taste buds do not taste the heat from the pepper directly. Rather, you are actually tasting the sensation of heat,” says Jim White, RD, ACSM EX-P, and owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. “The receptors in your mouth and tongue that sense hot temperatures and pain are the same receptors that are irritated when consuming spicy foods,” he explains, adding that once those receptors get irritated by the capsaicinoids, your brain thinks you’re eating something hot and attempts to cool your body. “Even though the temperature of the chili may be room temperature, the receptors in your mouth believe it is actually heat,” he says. “From this, your body may start sweating to bring its temperature back down.”

That initial tongue fire isn’t the only way your body deals with hot foods. As most of you well know, that pepper is going to stay with you from the moment you put it in your mouth until the moment it leaves your body. And for some people, that’s a less-than-pleasant process. As White explains, “Capsaicinoids first stimulate saliva production in the mouth. It also aggravates mucus membranes found in your nose, eyes, and throat, which can lead to watery eyes, a runny nose, and even sneezing during your meal.” Then the food moves into your stomach, where “the capsaicinoids relax your upper stomach sphincter, which allows food to later backtrack up your esophagus.” If you’re wondering why you get heartburn or burp like an old grandpa after you eat a spicy meal, that’s the reason. But wait, the fun isn’t over yet. “In addition to the possible heartburn, your stomach will also increase its production of highly acidic gastric juice,” says White. “This increase in acidic gastric juice means that when spicy food is fully digested, it can lead to an uncomfortable burning feeling after a bowel movement.”

Why do people like spicy food?

Despite all that, many people truly enjoy spicy food, and many are able to tolerate “hotter” food than others. Why is that? The short answer is that everyone’s bodies and sensory perceptions are different. As Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Maya Feller Nutrition, explains: “The spiciness from different foods is based on the individual food’s heat index, as well as a person’s individual taste receptors. So one person may be incredibly sensitive, where another finds a scotch bonnet pepper as mild as a bell pepper.” Cultural influence and basic personal preference also play a role. “People have likes and dislikes as well as cultural food pathways that introduce them to varying degrees of spicy foods from a young age,” Feller says.

It’s possible that the predilection for spice might begin even earlier than that. “There is research indicating that a person’s food preference starts even before you are born,” White says. “This means the foods your mom was eating while she was pregnant and breastfeeding can also influence the foods you tend to favor—such as spicy, sweet, or salty. Infant and young children’s taste buds are also influenced by what they are exposed to at a young age. This may be why those who grew up in homes that integrate large amounts of spice in their cooking are more adapted to eating spicy food as an adult.”

No matter how high or low your tolerance for spicy foods may be, pay attention to what your body is telling you when you eat them. Common post-meal discomforts include sweating and heartburn, and people with sensitivities need to be even more careful. “Spicy food can stimulate saliva and gastric juices,” Feller says. “For people with ulcers, GERD, and a sensitive GI, this can create upset.”

And pro tip: You might want to avoid the infamous ghost pepper altogether. “There have been documented cases of people dying from consuming ghost peppers, the world’s hottest pepper,” White says. “According to Dr. Paul Bosland, the founder of the ghost pepper, 3 pounds of this chili can kill a 150-pound person if consumed in a short enough amount of time.”

What to do if you eat too much spicy food

If you do find yourself in an unexpected five-alarm fire and need an immediate cool-down, White says, “Try eating some of the foods that bind to the capsaicin molecule, such as dairy, bread, and rice.” But whatever you do, remember that water is not your friend when eating spicy foods. As White helpfully reminds us, “Drinking water does not help counterbalance the effect of spice and actually spreads the molecules in your mouth, making it more painful.”

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In one survey of cookbooks from around the world, researchers note: “As mean annual temperatures (an indicator of relative spoilage rates of unrefrigerated foods) increased, the proportion of recipes containing spices, number of spices per recipe, total number of spices used, and use of the most potent antibacterial spices all increased.” In hot places, where before refrigeration food would have gone off very quickly, spices might have helped things keep a bit longer – or at least rendered them more palatable.

It’s also been suggested that because spicy food makes most people sweat, it might help us to cool off in hot parts of the world. The evaporative cooling effect that happens when we perspire is indeed useful in maintaining a body’s heat balance. In a very humid climate, though, it doesn’t matter how much you sweat: that evaporation won’t come to your rescue because there’s already too much moisture in the air. One study of people who drank hot water after exercise showed that they did cool down slightly more than those who drank cold water, but only in situations with low humidity. Thailand in August, that ain’t.

But spice is hardly limited to the tropics. While chilli peppers are originally from the Americas, this particular kind of heat grew widespread in the 15th and 16th Centuries, travelling with European traders. Other spices – not spicy in the same way as peppers, perhaps, but still strongly flavoured and bringing an extra oomph to a dish – had been circulating in Europe for centuries, with ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon brought in from the east.

Thai red chicken curry (iStock)

The Spice Girls were onto something when they released their hit song “Spice Up Your Life” in the ’90s. Turns out, a wealth of research supports the idea that adding spice to your food can offer some major health benefits.

Although there’s a slew of unexpected perks to giving your food a kick, capsaicin is the ingredient to keep in mind. The compound is found in jalapeños, habaneros, cayenne and most other chili peppers, and it’s the underlying reason spicy foods can help you lose weight and live a longer, healthier life.

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Here are 5 reasons to consider spicing up your food:

1. You’ll lose more weight.
Capsaicin is a thermogenic substance, meaning it causes the body temperature to rise, temporarily boosting metabolism and revving its ability to burn calories. Capsaicin may also decrease appetite and help curb cravings. A 2005 study in the International Journal of Obesity found that exposure to capsaicin increased participants’ satiety, and reduced their calorie and fat intake.

Consider adding tabasco sauce to your eggs at breakfast to give your metabolism an early-morning boost.

2. Your heart will thank you.
Heart disease remains the leading cause of death among men and women in America, but spicing up your food may help reduce your risk of developing the ailment. Studies suggest capsaicin may lower LDL, or bad, cholesterol, which accumulates on artery walls and constricts blood flow to the heart. Spicy food can help dilate blood vessels, promoting circulation and helping to manage your blood sugar, research presented during a 2012 American Chemical Society meeting suggests.

Unfortunately, eating spicy food won’t totally undo a bad diet. For optimal heart health, skip greasy foods like hot wings in lieu of adding peppers or hot spices to your favorite dish with lean protein like turkey or chicken.

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3. You may reduce your cancer risk.
You probably already know maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly can reduce your cancer risk, but consider adding a kick to your dish to further lower your chances. A 2006 study in the journal Cancer suggests capsaicin may inhibit the spread of prostate cancer cells. Spicy foods also are known to boost immunity. Studies suggest they can act as a decongestant, protecting against irritants and pollutants, like dust and smoke.

4. You’ll eat more mindfully.
Research suggests people who eat spicy foods are often more satiated than those who don’t, which can reduce the chances of overeating. That may be because spiciness in food naturally slows the eating process, giving the brain more time to realize the body is full. The end result: fewer calories consumed.

If there’s a food you tend to eat mindlessly, try turning up the heat with a squirt of Sriracha sauce to slow you down.

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5. You may live longer.
If the aforementioned perks weren’t persuasive enough, consider this suggested benefit: Eating spicy foods may help lengthen your life. A Harvard University study suggested that people who ate spicy food every day saw a 14 percent lower risk of death compared to people who ate spicy food only once a week or less. Consider sprinkling dried chili flakes on whole-wheat pasta, vegetables or soups to add a kick of flavor and potentially lengthen your life.

When it comes to healthy eating, spicy food gets some pretty mixed reviews. On one hand, there’s talk that it speeds up your metabolism. On the other, it might cause acid reflux. So…what gives?

Well, the whole “spicy food causes acid reflux” thing isn’t totally accurate. “Most people who have reflux or gastro issues don’t eat spicy food because they worry it might make them feel worse,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and Read It Before You Eat It . But while it may seem counterintuitive, “eating spicy food can actually decrease acid production.”

Still, if you’ve been avoiding spicy food, Taub-Dix doesn’t recommend having a crazy-hot meal right away. Start slow! “Ditch the salt and add blends of different spices and seasonings ,” she says. That extra spice adds delicious flavor to an array of veggies and proteins—making them even more enticing to eat.

The main health issue? Spicy foods are notoriously high in salt, says Taub-Dix, which can have negative effects on heart health. When you buy spicy foods or products at the store, check the label’s ingredient order. Ideally, you want the spice itself, like jalapeño, habanero, or chili powder at the very top—with salt low on the list, or not at all.

Okay…but why bother going through all this trouble? Is spicy food actually healthy? As it turns out, spicy food packs some 🔥🔥🔥benefits.

1. It boosts your metabolism.

Taub-Dix says spicy foods like hot chili peppers contain the active compound capsaicin, which helps boost metabolism as part of a healthy diet.

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“I wouldn’t rely on it as a weight loss method, though” she says. If you’re eating something not so healthy, adding hot sauce on top doesn’t cancel it out.

Not a fan of mouth-burning spice? The compound is also found in milder spices like turmeric and cumin, she says.

2. It curbs sugar cravings.

Ever get a hankering for sweets even though you’re not remotely hungry? Taub-Dix says spicy food works similar to toothpaste: You rarely want to go to town on sweets once your mouth is all minty fresh.

“After having the hot and spicy taste in your mouth, you usually don’t want cookies afterward,” she says. “I’ve had patients say that when they have chili sauce or jalapeño, they’re satisfied because it feels like they’ve hit the spot.”

And speaking of spicy foods…watch Chrissy Teigen taste-test some crazy chip flavors:

3. It reduces inflammation.

Inflammation is behind a host of serious illnesses, and Taub-Dix says capsaicin has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. “We know reducing inflammation has a positive effect on fighting heart issues and cancer,” she says.

4. It could boost your immune system.

While eating fistfuls of hot Cheetos won’t ward off the common cold, the idea is that spices contain antioxidant and antimicrobial properties that protect against bacteria in the body, according to Taub-Dix. Hot lemon water with a dash of cayenne à la the Beyoncé cleanse might not be the worst thing in the world at the onset of sniffles.

5. It may…spice up your libido.

Not feeling it tonight? Have a hot date with some hot wings. According to Taub-Dix, consuming spicy foods increases testosterone, the hormone tied to libido.

If you’re looking for a partner who can keep up, one study from the journal Physiology and Behavior found that those who gravitate towards spicy foods have higher levels of testosterone to begin with.

6. It can help you stay regular.

So, it’s not exactly the spicy foods themselves that’ll make you go, but all the chugging you’ll do to offset the burning pain, according to Taub-Dix. “It triggers you to drink more water, which helps with constipation,” she says.

7. It may reduce symptoms of depression.

Taub-Dix says spicy foods can release the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which helps boost mood and alleviate depression. Keep in mind, though, that mental health issues can be debilitating if left untreated. So seek professional help if you think you might have a problem, and don’t rely on spicy foods as a cure-all.

Marissa Miller Marissa Miller has spent a decade editing and reporting on women’s health issues from an intersectional lens with a focus on peer-reviewed nutrition, fitness trends, mental health, skincare, reproductive rights and beyond.

This article originally appeared on grandparents.com. To learn more .

Cayenne, jalapeno, habanero, chili—it seems like there are a million different kinds of hot peppers you can buy. And not only are they a great way to add flavor to your recipes, research shows that they may have a surprisingly positive effect on your health.

Hot peppers, like jalapeños and chilies, are rich in a component called capsaicin. “What we now know about capsaicin is that it has many benefits in terms of adding to the resistance to disease,” says Cary Present, M.D., a medical oncologist at City of Hope hospital in California and author of Surviving American Medicine. “Capsaicin as a local treatment can help with pain. Eating peppers can also help improve immunity, and we know from huge study done in China that people who ate peppers a few times a week had a longer life.”

Another go-to spice for improving your health: Tumeric, the yellow spice often used in Indian food and curries. The main active component of turmeric is curcumin, which studies show can help prevent cancer, decrease inflammation in the body, and have other positive effects.

They can help with weight loss

While there is no replacing exercise and cutting back on processed foods, adding spice to your recipes can speed up weight loss. “Research suggests that when you eat hot peppers, it increases your body heat, which boosts metabolism up to five percent, and increases fat burning up to 16 percent,” says nutritionist Pamela Peeke, M.D., author of The Hunger Fix: The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction. That means your body is burning calories more quickly. “Capsaicin promotes the stimulation of brown fat, which aids in metabolism,” she adds. Spicy food may also help you with your food cravings. Research from Purdue University found that eating spicy foods can decrease appetite and lower the amount of calories you eat.

Peppers and Turmeric help prevent heart disease

When it comes to the heart, peppers and turmeric have “a whole host of potential benefits,” says Michael Miller, M.D., professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and author of Heal Your Heart: The Positive Emotions Prescription to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. Both tumeric and red peppers have definite effects on the body’s circulation. “With respect to capsaicin (hot peppers), it can affect blood vessels and causes them to dilate, which can lead, to some degree, to blood pressure lowering,” he says. Capsaicin also may help prevent blood clots. “Turmeric (curcumin) has really powerful anti-inflammatory elements,” Dr. Miller continues, “it can help to reverse damage to blood vessels, and research by my colleagues at the University of Maryland shows that it may help lower cholesterol and prevent bad cholesterol from building up.”

Hot peppers could be the secret to living long

The secret to living longer may very well be eating a hot pepper or two…or three. A study by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Harvard School of Public Health looked at the eating habits of 500,000 people aged 30-79 in China over a five-year period, and found that the people who ate spicy foods six or seven times a week had a 14 percent lower risk of dying prematurely. “That number isn’t huge, but it is statistically significant,” says Dr. Presant. If that’s not convincing enough, Dr. Peeke looks at the idea of spicy food aiding in longevity this way: “Eating spicy foods helps with cancer prevention, you have a healthier heart, and they help you lose weight. All those things together can definitely help you live longer,” she says.

Curcumin reduces the growth of cancer cells

“Curcumin has has astonishing effects in cancer cells.” says Dr. Presant. “There is good laboratory evidence that it works in reducing the growth of cancer cells and preventing them as well.” Studies have found that curcumin has a positive effect on slowing breast cancer, cervical cancer, and stomach cancer, as well as others. As for capsaicin, a study from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that it killed 80 percent of prostate cancer cells in mice, while leaving normal cells unharmed.”The capsaicin blocks the cancer cells,” explains Dr. Peeke.

Spicy foods are all natural pain reliever

If you’ve got pain from arthritis, shingles, or even some kinds of headaches, doctors often use an over-the-counter cream with capsaicin as the active ingredient. While you could try rubbing the area with hot peppers in a pinch, Dr. Present suggests using the cream since it has a concentrated amount of capsaicin, and has been proven to be effective.

How much do you need to eat?

Sorry to say, bell peppers and crushed black pepper are not considered spicy foods. Bell peppers do not have capsaicin even though they are technically in the same family with chili peppers. “You’re going to have to eat something that starts firing it up a little bit,” says Dr. Peeke. “You don’t have to dive into a habaneros tomorrow, but you do have to add a small amount of something like crushed red pepper or ground cayenne.”

Black pepper doesn’t have capsaicin either, although Dr. Peeke points out that “the active substance in black pepper is piperine, which gives it flavor but also blocks the formation of new fat cells.” Combine black pepper with a little capsaicin, which speeds up metabolism, and “you’ve got yourself a great thing,” she says.

As for how much spicy food you need to eat to get the benefits, doctors recommend that you try to include hot peppers and turmeric in your diet two to three times a week. Since eating them raw can be a challenge, you can sautee them or cook them, says Dr. Miller, and they retain their healthful benefits.

If you have trouble tolerating spicy foods or they bother your stomach, “a lot of people couple it with yogurt or something that will line the stomach wall,” says Dr. Peeke. Otherwise, if you can’t tolerate the spice, skip it, and talk to your doctor about taking a curcumin or capsaicin supplement.

James Gorman has a delightful investigation of spicy food and evolution. One of the mysteries he explores is why we like these painful foods in the first place. Shouldn’t we want to avoid a fruit that singes the mouth and makes us imbibe vast quantities of water?

Some experts argue that we like chilies because they are good for us. They can help lower blood pressure, may have some antimicrobial effects, and they increase salivation, which is good if you eat a boring diet based on one bland staple crop like corn or rice. The pain of chilies can even kill other pain, a concept supported by recent research.

Others, notably Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that the beneficial effects are too small to explain the great human love of chili-spiced food. “I don’t think they have anything to do with why people eat and like it,” he said in an interview. Dr. Rozin, who studies other human emotions and likes and dislikes (“I am the father of disgust in psychology,” he says) thinks that we’re in it for the pain. “This is a theory,” he emphasizes. “I don’t know that this is true.”

But he has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

But here’s the question I’m interested in: Why does spicy food taste “hot”? After all, a chili pepper at room temperature will still “burn” our tongue and cause us to sweat. We’ll crave ice-cold water and wave our hands frantically in front of our face. To answer this question, we need to investigate the physiology of taste. It turns out that capsaicin – the active ingredient in spicy food – binds to a special class of vanilloid receptor inside our mouth called VR1 receptors. After capsaicin binds to these receptors, the sensory neuron is depolarized, and it sends along a signal indicating the presence of spicy stimuli.

But here’s the strange part: VR1 receptors weren’t designed to detect capsaicin. They bind spicy food by accident. The real purpose of VR1 receptors is thermoreception, or the detection of heat. This means that they are supposed to prevent us from consuming food that will burn our sensitive flesh. (That’s why our VR1 receptors are clustered in our tongue, mouth and skin.) As a result, when the receptors are activated by capsaicin, the sensation we experience is indelibly linked to the perception of temperature, to the feeling of eating something near the boiling point of water. But that pain is just an illusory side-effect of our confused neural receptors. There is nothing “hot” about spicy food.

The larger point, of course, is that vast swaths of the reality we take for granted are mere accidents of anatomy. We can’t help but believe in the “hotness” of chilis – the pain is so visceral – but that belief is an illusion. And so, every time I eat spicy food I think for a second about what other perceptions I’m taking too literally. Which of my cinematic sensations can I actually trust? And then I go back to chugging water.

Photo Credit: Gaensler, on Flickr

Why Spicy Foods Hurt So Good

Why do we love hot foods so much? You know, your favorite brand of hot salsa that lights your tongue on fire, or that bottle of chili paste in your fridge that burns all the way to your stomach.

Not everyone can handle spicy foods, but for those of you who love the stuff, there’s a good reason behind the obsession.
When capsaicin – the chemical in spicy foods that makes them so hot, Hot, HOT – hits your tongue, your body registers the sensation as pain. This in turn triggers the release of endorphins, otherwise known as “happy” chemicals that give you an instant head-to-toe feeling of pleasure.
While using spicy foods to feel pleasure may seem a bit similar to drug addiction, experts say there’s no harm in enjoying the burn and ensuing rush of bliss.
Just be careful you don’t get too used to the heat, otherwise other plain foods in your repertoire will start to taste bland and boring.
And remember, if you bite into something fiery (habanero peppers, anyone?) and find the pain unforgiving, keep in mind that capsaicin is a fat-soluble molecule.
To calm the burn, don’t drink water, which is (obviously) water-soluble and won’t do a darned thing for curbing the heat. Instead, drink whole milk or have a bite of ice cream for instant relief.


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I love spicy food. I put red chili flakes on almost everything I eat and when I eat out I almost always ask for the dish to be extra spicy (if it’s a dish that’s supposed to be spicy of course). My friend in high school though hated spicy food. She thought even the mildest food was spicy; she thought that the chicken at Chipotle was spicy, and I still don’t know how. I couldn’t understand how she could think such a mild flavored food was so torturous while I was loving the burning sensation of the spiciest hot sauce. So I began to wonder, why do some people love eating spicy food while others can’t stand the spice?

This observational study looked at the mechanisms behind people’s enjoyment of spicy foods and found that increased exposure to chilies in food led people to begin liking the spice of the food. It’s not that people who like spicy food don’t feel the spiciness of that food, but they grow to enjoy that feeling. The researchers believe that this change could be because of relations of the food with positive experiences, including enhanced flavor of food or rewards. The scientists also hypothesized that maybe our initial dislike of chilies is to warn us of the heat, but the pleasure that some feel while eating spicy foods may be a result of enjoying a food that the body has deemed potentially harmful. The enjoyment and consumption of spicy foods may also be a form of thrill seeking. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the methods and procedure behind this study, so I am unable to assess it based on any criteria, but I found the abstract to be rather interesting and informative of some of the possibilities of why people enjoy spicy foods.

While looking for other possible factors at play, I found this study that used twins from Finland—47 monozygotic and 93 dizygotic twins plus 51 twins without the other twin—to look at how genetics influence our enjoyment of spicy foods. They had the subjects eat strawberry jelly with and without capsaicin and then rate how pleasant and pungent the food was. Based on their answers, the subjects were then divided into three groups—non-likers, medium-likers, and likers. They found that genetics accounted for 18-58% of the variation in how the subjects rated the pleasantness of spicy foods, and the sensations they feel when consuming the food. How pleasant one found the spicy food was correlated with the shared genes. Based on these results, the researchers felt that genetics play a role in the enjoyment of spicy foods. This could explain why both my dad and myself love those extra hot meals. The study, however was relatively small and relied heavily on self-evaluations of responses to spicy food, which is not the most accurate form of data collection. But it definitely offers an interesting explanation as to why some people prefer spicy food, although the exact genes that may be at play and why only some people have the gene for preference of spicy food is not known.

Personality differences is also an explanation as to why some people show a stronger affinity toward spicy food. This study looked at the relation between personality, which they defined in terms of body awareness/consciousness, sensation seeking, sensitivity to punishment, and sensitivity to reward and the enjoyment of food with capsaicin (spicy foods). They found a strong relation between people enjoying spicy food and how frequently they consumed said food, which is not at all surprising. But they did not find an association between how often one ate spicy food and the perception of the burning of that spicy food.

I find this hard to believe because of my own experiences. I feel like the more I eat spicy foods, the spicier foods I’m able to consume. In an article in The Atlantic, John Hayes, director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at this very university, stated that desensitization plays a role in the enjoyment of spicy foods. To allow yourself to enjoy spicy foods more, you must consume them more to get your body used to the feeling, after which your body will crave more of that spicy heat. TRPV1, a pain receptor in our bodies, regulates the feeling that comes when we consume capsaicin. Capsaicin lowers the amount of energy that causes these receptors to activate, which makes your body and mind react as though your mouth is on fire when in reality you’re really doing just fine. So, although there was no evidence found in this study that the perception of how spicy something is changes with the frequency of consumption, my experiences and the words of John Hayes makes me question that.

But the study also found that personality traits did not correlate with the perceived burning of spicy food. Sensation seeking, however, was positively correlated with how much people enjoyed spicy food. And sensitivity to reward was slightly associated with the liking of spicy food as well. How often one ate spicy food was also associated with people who are sensation seeking and sensitive to reward. This thrill seeking mentality could be part of why people feel the need to consume spicier and spicier foods. Maybe those people enjoy extreme sensations, or maybe they enjoy being able to declare their strength in terms of the amount of spice that they can handle. Either way, it’s an interesting finding that I hadn’t thought about before.

Another study looked at gender differences in the liking of spicy food in relation to personality traits and found that sensitivity to reward was more associated with the liking of spicy food in men and sensation seeking was more associated with the liking of spicy food in women. The researchers hypothesized that men may enjoy spicy foods because of external factors while women may enjoy spicy food because of more intrinsic factors. The subjects were actually from Penn State, which is very cool, and there were 246 participants between the ages of 18 and 45. They accounted for many confounding variables such as pregnancy, defective taste or smell, the taking of prescription pain medications, and race and ethnicity. The data however was self-reported, which always may lead to some bias. I have found my male friends to enjoy spice more than my female friends, so this study definitely holds up with my own experiences. And another study found that men with more testosterone added more hot sauce to their mashed potatoes, but not more salt, further supporting that gender may be a predictor of how much one enjoys spice.

Overall, it seems like there are many factors that may be at play here. But, if you’re female, or not adventurous, don’t think that you’re incapable of enjoying some good spicy food. Instead, see where your own personal threshold is, and maybe after consuming spicy food more frequently you will be able to increase your own tolerance and eat that extra fiery hot sauce your friends have been raving about. And if you don’t care about being able to tolerate that spice, then just keep on avoiding those spicy foods, that way they can’t hurt you.

What a Love of Spicy Foods Might Say About Your Personality

Imagine you are on a date at an Italian restaurant. Like all people who harbor affection for each other, you both delight in discovering the things you have in common, such as a preference for the same wine or a passion for a certain movie. But suddenly things take a turn for the worse. Your date pours half a bottle of Tabasco sauce onto his pizza arrabbiata, offers you a slice drenched in the sauce, and goes on to enthuse about the various spicy dishes at his favorite Mexican restaurant, which you “must try soon.” Until now you had actually been quite happy with the choice of restaurant, and the spaghetti carbonara on your plate is just how you like it. You were about to order your favorite dessert, panna cotta, but the prospect of sharing spicy foods with this guy in the future has put you off.

What if your unease at discovering these opposing food preferences was not unfounded? “Because what I eat, what I drink is in itself the ‘second self’ of my being,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. What does that mean for how you see your date?

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Chile likers are adventurers. This conclusion came from Paul Rozin and Deborah Schiller of the University of Pennsylvania after they evaluated the first systematic study on chile ingestion. In Mexico, for example, eating chile peppers is regarded as a sign of strength, valor, and masculine attributes. It was found that American students with a penchant for chiles also had a passion for daring and potentially risky activities including fast driving, parachuting, or swimming in ice. Each of these experiences initially requires a certain mental effort to conquer one’s fears, but just as with eating chile peppers, one learns to assess the risk over time. The constrained risk might just be what makes chiles so exciting for some, says Rozin.

Technically speaking, pungency is not a taste; it’s not sweet, salty, bitter, sour, or umami. Hot means pain, which is why you, the careful type, automatically recoil from the offered pizza slice. The typical pain response is triggered as capsaicin, a chemical compound found in chile peppers, hits the pain receptors on the tongue. If it got into your eyes or touched the sensitive lining of your nose, as capsaicin-containing pepper spray would, you’d be doubling over and screaming in pain. So, what makes someone abuse a sensitive part of their body like their tongue with a chemical weapon and reach out for products with names such as Spontaneous Combustion, the Reaper, Mega Death Sauce (Feel Alive!), and Pain 85%, 95%, and 100%? These may sound like the names of death metal bands, but they’re actual off-the-shelf hot sauces.

Some people do it for pleasure. According to Rozin, inducing this negative physical experience (accelerated heart rate, sweating, burning sensation, watering eyes, shortness of breath) is evidence of benign masochism. He compares it to watching a horror movie that makes you feel real fear despite knowing that nothing can happen to you.

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You won’t find anything comparable in the animal kingdom. Even pigs, who usually devour anything edible (and who, if they live in the Mexican highlands, should be accustomed to spicy leftover food from people), tend to give a wide berth to tortillas with a spicy sauce. They have no idea that the perceived heat isn’t “real” but merely a misinterpretation by their brain. We, however, know that chiles won’t burn us on the inside. We are intelligent enough to defy the warning signals to a certain extent. In his book Pain: A Story of Liberation, published in German, the physician Harro Albrecht writes that it is as if we triumph over a basic instinct from a safe distance and are rewarded by our brain with a biochemical treat in the form of endorphins. The same principle applies to the so-called runner’s high of marathon runners.

Chile lovers are eager to try new things; willing to take risks; and hungry for variety, strong emotions, and adventures—all characteristics linked to thrill seekers. Put in a good light, this means they have a high degree of curiosity; in less friendly terms, they are easily bored.

This knowledge about your date’s personality should send alarm bells ringing if you’re someone who likes to play it safe. People who avoid excitement, value consistency, and generally manage perfectly well without exposing themselves to extreme situations should pay more attention to a new acquaintance’s preference for hot spices in the future—even if chiles are beneficial for your health, boost your metabolism, and have an analgesic and antibacterial effect.

Excerpted from How We Eat with Our Eyes and Think with Our Stomach by Melanie Mühl and Diana von Kopp. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold. theexperimentpublishing.com

Melanie Mühl is a features editor at the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and co-author of the paper’s blog Food Affair. Diana von Kopp is a psychologist and writer for Food Affair.

  • By Melanie Mühl
  • By Diana von Kopp

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