Hot peppers (and the sauce we make from them) can increase our natural tolerance for pain. But how?
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Since ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, human beings have known there’s more to hot peppers than just their spicy kick. From medicine men to modern doctors, we recognized that hot peppers -- and the sauces we make from them -- can actually relieve pain. It may hurt at first, but spicy peppers eventually have an analgesic effect.
So if you’re a lover of hot sauce, is it because you like the taste? Or because you’re a pepper junkie hooked on a feeling? Are you high on believing? Well believe this: there’s a two-part process that spicy foods like hot sauce use to make us feel like we’re high on fire.
First is a potent chemical called capsaicin and its partner dihydrocapsaicin. They have no color, odor or actual flavor. However, both trick our nervous system into thinking that our tongues have touched something scorching hot, as though a burning coal fell in your mouth.
These capsaicinoids trigger a protein in our mouths called “TRPV1.” This protein signals our brain by releasing a neuropeptide called “Substance P” and tells it our mouth is burning. To give you a comparison, it usually isn’t activated by anything in our mouths over 109 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius). That’s how hot something has to be to stimulate the same response as hot sauce. But when it’s triggered, “Substance P” tells our brains to pump endorphins to the site.
These endorphins are what cause the “natural high” reported by fans of intense hot sauce. Similar to morphine, they make our nerves more tolerant to pain. It’s a pleasant sensation, kind of like the “runner’s high” reported by marathon racers. Endorphins like these also help pregnant women with the pain of childbirth, even increasing their soothing levels in amniotic fluid so the child itself is protected from birthing pains. So… in a way, eating hot sauce reminds us of being born into this big, bright world.
So if it can make us feel that good, why aren’t we all hot sauce addicts, jonesing for our next fix? Well, it turns out you can actually build up a tolerance to it. If you’re consistently exposed to capsaicin, it can potentially kill fibers in the receptors that alert your brain. Also, it is possible to use up your nerve’s supply of “Substance P” and continued exposure to capsaicin can prevent it from replenishing. It’s only after the exposure stops that your nerves can produce it again.
Despite this, scientists are looking into ways to use capsaicin to manage pain for everything from shingles to arthritis.
What Happens When You Inhale Sriracha Fumes. By: Sifferlin, Alexandra, Time.com, 5/16/2014
Ask Men's Health. By: Dailey, Kate, Men's Health, 10544836, Dec2005, Vol. 20, Issue 10
WHAT'S SO HOT ABOUT PEPPERS? By: Biebuyck, Valerie, Odyssey, 01630946, Mar2003, Vol. 12, Issue 3
Using the Brain to Conquer Pain. By: Myslinski, Norbert R., World & I, 08879346, Feb2003, Vol. 18, Issue 2
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