Some Like it Hot: The Science Behind Spicy Food Cravings
When it comes to spicy food, there are those who absolutely love it and those who really don't. It's generally one or the other--it seems there's not a lot of middle ground when it comes to setting your tastebuds aflame. I used to be a total wimp when it came to spice. No level of anything spicy would be allowed on my plate. "Mild" was the only kind of salsa I was OK with, and buffalo wings were simply out of the question. But over time and experiences that forced me out of my culinary comfort zone, I was introduced to the wonders of drizzling hot sauce over anything and everything. And I've since been totally hooked. But why? Why would my palate go from fearing heat to craving it?
On a mission to find the answer to that question, I uncovered some fairly enlightening information about the properties of hot peppers that, as a hot sauce addict, made me go oh hell yes. For anyone else out there like me who has come to see the red hot light and developed a real love for all things spicy (I may or may not have a couple bottles of hot sauce stashed in my desk drawer), this is going to explain a lot.
Spicy foods originate from some one key ingredient: peppers. There are countless varieties of hot peppers: jalapeño peppers, cayenne peppers, flaming varieties like ghost peppers, etc. And the vast multitude of pepper varieties mirrors the sea of different of hot sauces and spices available to bring concentrated fire to our food. Countless shades of red and green color the hot sauce shelves along the condiment aisle, but most true hot sauce fanatics faithfully swear by their favorite one(s).
For some of people, hot sauce isn't a condiment, it's a lifestyle. But why is that? Are these people chemically wired to have a higher pain threshold in their mouths? Doesn't the spiciness mask the flavors of their food? Doesn't that defeat the purpose of enjoying varied meals? All completely valid questions. And there's a bit of science behind it.
What is Capsaicin?
We all know that food has an impact on our bodies. Energy in, energy out. Different foods impact our bodies differently, and of course everyone takes in and uses that energy differently depending on their individual body chemistry. But beyond this direct conversion physical energy, food impacts our mind as well. If you've ever had a really exceptional meal, you'll recognize that as you eat and finish it, you experience a rush of happiness or a heightened mood that can generally be described as an overall sense of well-being. This is a primal biological response that stems from our most basic instincts. A full belly means survival--and the body rewards you for that, especially if the food is high in quality and nutritious. This rush of feel-good energy comes in part from endorphins, which is a chemical produced in the brain that makes you feel great. Endorphins are natural pain and stress relievers, are linked to sensations of love and happiness, and are also the source of that "runner's high" that many people experience after working out. But what exactly do endorphins have to do with spicy foods?
The answer lies in the intrinsic molecular compound of hot peppers. Spicy peppers contain a compound called capsaicin. The higher the capsaicin amount, the hotter the pepper. If you've ever seriously felt the heat after eating spicy foods, you can thank capsaicin for that. Capsaicin is a compound that tricks the cells in your mouth into thinking they're coming into contact with something that is literally hot to the touch (like a hot stove eye), much in the same way that ingredients like spearmint make your mouth feel cool. Oddly enough, Capsaicin is a known pain reliever and has been documented to reduce the effects of arthritis pain, dermatological conditions, and neuropathic pain and is included in some over the counter pain-reliever creams. Because capsaicin causes the body to interpret a pain response, it also causes the body to release endorphins in order to block pain receptors. In other words, foods containing capsaicin pretend to be a physical threat to your body in order to fool it into releasing some good feels. That said, spicy foods (within reason) are not only not a threat to your body, they are quite good for it.
The Health Benefits
The endorphin release explained above, often coupled with the experience of eating good (spicy) food, is one explanation for why people can become so hooked on hot sauce--it is a legitimate mental/physical response. Beyond this, spicy peppers offer plenty of benefits that can improve your overall health and well-being.
So how exactly is the power of spiciness being used for larger good? For one thing, as it turns out, cancer cells don't like capsaicin very much. And while research on this is ongoing, consuming foods with a heated capsaicin kick can aid physical health and wellness in a myriad of other ways, including:
- Alleviating nasal congestion
- Headache prevention
- Allergy relief
- Blood clot prevention
- Balancing cholesterol
- Healthy blood pressure promotion
- Relieving joint pain
- Acting as a detox agent
- Antioxidant boosting
- Heart disease prevention
Are you a something of a hot sauce addict? Do you keep a bottle in your purse or car just in case? Let us know your favorite types and applications in the comments below. And above all, if you too have an obsession with all things spicy, I enthusiastically encourage you to just keep on doing you. Go ahead, douse that omelet or shower that pizza with the hot stuff without shame. Because now you know, it's good for your body, mind, and soul. Science says so.