Remember taking that bite of hot wings, Kimchi, or curry? You probably experienced a flaming sensation in your head and yearned for a glass of water just as the food touched your tongue. Perhaps, you have seen cartoons of someone eating spicy food with flames coming out of their nose. Many competitions such as the one chip challenge or spicy noodles challenge appeal to the sensation of spiciness. Some people cannot stand eating spicy foods while others take delight in the pungency. Then why do some of us continue to eat painful foods? What causes the flaming feeling?
Our Response to Spicy Foods
A number of spicy foods like chilly peppers contain an active component called capsaicin. When consumed, this ingredient binds to a certain type of receptor in our mouth called vanilloid receptors (abbreviated as VR1 or TRPV1). A signal is then transmitted through the trigeminal nerve to the brain releasing a sensation. The trigeminal nerve connects the brain to our mouth, nose, and eyes.
The Burning Feeling
So, what is that “hot” or “burning” feeling that we call spiciness? The interesting thing is that the vanilloid receptors aren’t actually designed to detect capsaicin. Vanilloid receptors are actually supposed to detect heat. Furthermore, they are supposed to prevent us from burning our flesh. In reality, the ingredient, capsaicin, is able to bind to the receptors and trick the brain into thinking that you ate hot food. This causes the hot, burning, and searing feeling. You may have also seen a difference in how you feel after eating certain types of spicy food. For example, chili peppers, black peppers, and ginger are made of large molecules called alkylamides which stay in your mouth. However, mustard plants, horseradish, and wasabi are made of smaller molecules called isothiocyanates which float easily up into sinuses. This explains why some foods cause burning in your mouth while others in your nose.
Why Eat Spicy Food?
Some people will refrain from eating anything like hot sauce. While others will indulge right in. So, why do people like this enjoy eating spicy foods so much? When you eat spicy food and your receptors are activated, signalling a sensation from the brain, your body starts to act in a similar way as in a fight or flight response. Your heart starts beating faster and pumping more blood to your brain and muscles. Your eyes turn red and you start to sweat or tear up. But the part that people enjoy most is that in the end you have an energized effect! Endorphins, natural pain killers, are released during the process. Additionally, you feel better and are less hungry. Many studies even show a correlation between thrill/sensation seekers, people who take part in risky activities like skydiving, are more attracted towards spicy foods.
If you eat spicy food regularly you may be able to start to tolerate the sensation more. Now, if you ever make the mistake of taking a bite of too much spiciness, just remember to enjoy the thrill! Oily foods dissolve and remove capsaicin from your mouth. So take a glass of milk instead of water next time!
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