The chemical in chile peppers responsible for their heat is capsaicin. Amazingly, capsaicin itself helps you get used to capsaicin, and thus the heat sensation, from chiles. One thing you may not realize about the spicy heat of chile peppers, is that while a large amount of capsaicin burns the heck out of your mouth, eyes, mucous membranes, or any other sensitive parts of the anatomy it comes into contact with (do I have to go there?), it also has the effect of desensitizing you to its own heat.
The chemical capsaicin is named after the genus of the plant, the capsicum genus, for the very reason that it is unique to the genus. You may have noticed that habitual chile eaters can get used to eating hotter and hotter chiles or food, and they develop a need for more heat to satisfy their heat hankerings. This is different than heat from other plants, such as mustard, ginger, or black pepper (not related to chile peppers), etc. No matter how many times you eat these foods, you’ll still register the same general level of heat. So while no other plant foods can deliver anywhere near the heat of a chile, you can see why people are crazy enough to eat even some of the hottest chiles in their food. The chile has a built-in mechanism, if you will, for getting us used to its own heat.
When you eat chiles, the taste buds themselves do not register the capsaicin. The heat is actually registered by cells called trigeminal cells, which are pain receptors located in the mouth, nose, and stomach. The unaccustomed cells are capable of detecting the heat of capsaicin in dilutions down to 1 part in 16 million, in fact. When they come into contact with capsaicin, the cells release substance P, a pain signaling chemical, which results in the brain sending a pain message. Another mechanism, controlled by the nervous system, however, tells the brain to flood the nerve endings with endorphins.
Chiles are a Feel-Good Drug
Endorphins are a kind of feel-good drug of the body. They are responsible for the sense of euphoria and relaxation that comes after a strenuous workout or a long run, called “runners high.” This endorphin rush could explain why some people seem to become addicted to peppers. Don’t worry, this is a good kind of drug to be on. What we have learned is that the endorphins mask the presence of the capsaicin. It hangs around quite a long time, as it’s not water-soluble. That means that the need for the endorphins continues a while, as the capsaicin is not destroyed in the mouth. So eating an extremely pungent chile is like giving yourself an IV drip of your own natural morphine. Okay, not quite, but you get the point: Chiles may be physiologically addicting. So part of the craving for hotter and hotter chiles may be a craving for more and more endorphins.
Chile Side Effects
All the other symptoms we get, runny nose, watery eyes, drooling, racing heart..yeah, you know what I’m talking about…well, that’s just the body over-reacting to these urgent signals from the pain receptors. The capsaicin is harmless, really, but your body doesn’t know this so it goes into a frenzy trying to flush the stuff out.
It’s Not Just Endorphins
But what most people miss is that dedicated chile eaters really do not feel like they register the heat of even extremely hot chiles like they once did. So, not only may they have a craving for more and more endorphins, they are getting less of a pain response from the chiles, the more they eat them, and the hotter they go, resulting in the need for MORE heat to deliver their chile buck. Well, we know that capsaicin preparations can be used topically to treat pain. Or did you know that? Yes, capsaicin, that bringer of pain, can temporarily relieve it. And the same thing happens in your mouth.
All the reasons this happens require a lot of big medical words I don’t really understand, but part of it is that the substance P I talked about, if you eat enough chiles, is temporarily depleted. So, along with that and some other stuff happening, you are temporarily desensitized to the capsaicin. This has the benefit, for pain management, of reducing pain in the area the capsaicin is applied. For the chile eater, it means simply that the more heat you eat, the more heat you can beat. But, you have to be eating spicy chile laden foods, or chiles themselves, all the time. The effect quickly wears off, so if you used to be the chile eating champ of the world, but that was the glory days of 20 years ago, don’t go thinking you can bite off a habanero right now. You’ve got to start at the start, again, as it were.