• “Capsaicin has an almost unrivalled ability to generate pain in our bodies,” says James Wong. (EyeEm/Getty Images)Source: EyeEm/Getty Images
Why do some people derive pleasure from the burning pain created by a hot chilli? Find out in 'Michael Mosley’s Secrets of Your Food'.
Yasmin Noone

30 May 2018 - 1:43 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2018 - 2:03 PM

To witness a chilli-lover down mouthfuls of the small, burning ingredient – to watch their face turn a blazing red, tears roll down their face and sweat stream out of their pours – can be an intense form of dinner-time entertainment. 

It appears that the chilli-eater has a magnetic attraction to feel the burn, until they can't feel no more. Is it possible that chilli-lovers derive pleasure from the hot pain caused by eating a chilli?

Science journalist, Dr Michael Mosley and botanist James Wong investigate how chillies make our mouth burn and why some people enjoy the painful heat produced by chillies in the final episode of the new SBS three-part series Michael Mosley’s Secrets of Your Food.

So why do chillies taste hot to humans? 

Firstly, Wong explains, not every animal that consumes chillies will experience the same painful sensation. For example, he says, parrots can eat large quantities of chillies without feeling the heat that most of humans do. So why do chillies taste hot to humans?

“Everyone says it’s the seeds [of a chilli] that are spicy but that’s not true,” says Wong in episode three of Michael Mosley’s Secrets of Your Food airing on SBS on Wednesday 30 May at 7.30pm.

“It’s this business here,” he explains, pointing at the white pith inside of a chilli, surrounding the seeds. “It’s this white spongy layer that we call the placenta. That’s where pretty much all your capsaicin manufactured.”

Capsaicin is main pungent compound found in chillies, responsible for its heat and spiciness. Its purpose is to act as an irritant, to deter most mammals from eating the chilli. As a result, capsaicin produces a burning sensation when it comes into contact with human tissue.

“Capsaicin has an almost unrivalled ability to generate pain in our bodies.”

How does the capsaicin in chillies cause pain in humans? 

Capsaicin elicits the burning pain we experience when we bite into a hot chilli by activating specific (vanilloid) receptors on sensory nerve endings. “All this capsaicin has direct effect on a particular part of biology, the TRPV1 receptors are found in the mouth, on the tongue and along the body.”

According to a study published in Nature in 2015, Transient Receptor Potential Vanilloid 1 (TRPV1) is expressed by sensory neurons of the pain pathway. TRPV1 functions as a heat sensor and can detect various chemicals, including capsaicin found in chillies.

“The purpose [of TRPV1 is] to detect the sensation of scolding heat and raise an alarm signal in the brain to protect the body from harm,” continues Wong.

“Capsaicin has an almost unrivalled ability to generate pain in our bodies.”

“Purely by chance, the shape of the capsaicin molecule happens to fit onto the TRPV1 receptor like a master key in a lock.”

The TRPV1 receptor activates when it comes into contact with capsaicin and “sends a signal to the brain, fooling it into thinking that the mouth is on fire”.

Our brain actually thinks we are burning our mouth and are in true danger when we eat a hot chilli.

Dr Mosley explains that the brain responds to this fiery feeling in our mouth with a ‘fight or flight response’. Detecting the burning sensation from the chilli as a threat, the body reacts with a shot of adrenaline. “The heart beats harder and faster,” says Dr Mosley. “Pupils dilate, you breath deeper and your arteries widen, sending a flood of blood to your muscles to get them ready for action.

“It’s all accompanied by a more positive feeling, which holds the key to why some people like this fiery sensation. The thing is that when you eat a really hot chilli, what you also get is an endorphin response. Sometimes you get [a rush of endorphins] when you exercise. It’s supposed to be a feel-good hormone…It’s part of the chilli’s allure.”

Our brain actually thinks we are burning our mouth and are in true danger when we eat a hot chilli.

Dr Mosley says endorphins are powerful painkillers released from our own bodies to reduce the chilli’s sting. “But they are also thought to induce a pervasive sense of happiness, even a rush, which can be addictive.”

As Wong explains, eating chillies may be perceived as a risky activity that people with thrill-seeking personalities seek out to feed their brain’s desire for stimulation.

“The reason why psychologists think we like eating chillies is because it’s a minor form of sadomasochism,” says Wong. “It’s a bit like riding a roller coaster…a human rush of excitement.

“We still don’t know why people have different tolerances to fiery foods but we can speculate that people with thrill-seeking personalities are more likely to expose themselves to the burn [of a chilli] and may build up a tolerance to capsaicin.”

“The reason why psychologists think we like eating chillies is because it’s a minor form of sadomasochism."

A study from Pennsylvania State University published online in 2012 looked into the psychological influences of liking foods containing capsaicin. The results showed a positive correlation between sensation seeking and the liking of spicy foods, but not non-spicy control foods. The frequency of chilli consumption was positively associated with sensation seeking and sensitivity to reward.

“The findings supported the hypothesis that personality differences may drive differences in spicy food liking and intake,” the study reads.

However, it’s also been suggested that repeated exposure to capsaicin and chillies may result in chronic desensitisation.

Whether you like the burn of a chilli or not, it turns out that the best cure to kill its heat is milk.

“The best thing to soothe the burn [of a hot chilli] is not water but milk,” says Dr Mosley.

“It helps neutralise capsaicin because it contains something called casein. Casein molecules are attracted to oily substances like capsaicin in chillies. They surround the capsaicin preventing it from latching onto the TRPV1 receptors in our bodies and it just gets washed away.

“So if you ever encounter a curry you can’t handle, don’t bother with water. Reach for the dairy.”

The new three-part series, Michael Mosley's Secrets Of Your Food, starts on SBS on Wednesday 16 May at 7.30pm and continues each week at the same time on SBS. Or watch now via SBS On Demand 

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