Everyone has endured the pure torture — or, to some, heaven — of biting into a spicy food and being left helpless as the fire in your mouth becomes a conflagration. This intense heat can be blamed on capsaicin.
Capsaicin is a chemical found in the white flesh of chili peppers. Although it is at a safe level in chili peppers, it can be very dangerous. When dealing with capsaicin in its pure form, goggles, respirators, and HAZMAT suits are necessary to keep you from literally burning your face off.
After taking a bite into a spicy food, the capsaicin in it binds to your TRPV1 receptors. TRPV1 receptors are found on the surface of your taste buds and many other places on your body. After the capsaicin binds to the receptor, the receptor opens, allowing ions to run through it. The sensation from this change is transmitted through your trigeminal nerve — a nerve that branches out from your brain to your mouth, nose, and eyes — to your brain, which responds by releasing a sensation of warmth in your mouth.
The reason why your mouth feels warmth is that TRPV1 receptors are not meant to detect capsaicin. Their main purpose is to prevent you from consuming literally hot foods. However, TRPV1 receptors also respond to certain chemical influences, including capsaicin. Because of your TRPV1 receptors’ intended purpose, your central nervous system is tricked into believing that you ate a hot food.
Once your brain notices that you are under assault, it sends out the fire squad to remove the hot substance.
Your circulation is increased to boost your metabolism. Cooling sweat and endorphins — your body’s natural pain killers — are released. Fibers in your nose are activated, causing inflammation, and your eyes are stimulated, causing them to tear up. Your body wants that hot thing gone!
A common myth is that if you eat chilies on a regular basis, your tongue’s tolerance for them will increase. This is partially true. Over a short period of time, the perceived heat from the same food will decrease, but only because your TRPV1 receptors are hiding to protect themselves from damage. Once the coast is clear, they will come back out and your tolerance will return to normal.
Although your TRPV1 receptors hide to prevent damage, eating spicy foods will not damage your tongue unless you go to extremes. If your tongue’s sensitivity seems to have permanently decreased, it is probably from damage. It is usually impossible to regain your sensitivity, so if this happens, get it checked out! But, if you become mentally stronger, you’re probably fine.
Since this reaction is meant to help you, it is hard to stop. Drinking water won’t unstick the capsaicin from your receptors, but something with alcohol or fat — like milk — will. So, if your mouth is burning from eating something spicy, drink milk to save the day.
“The Agony and Ecstasy of Capsaicin.” YouTube, uploaded by SciFri, 18 Aug. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6xn-9ZlPvk. Accessed 1 Aug. 2017.
Bryner, Jeanna. “Why Do Chili Peppers Taste Hot?” LiveScience, Purch, 30 Jan. 2013, www.livescience.com/32449-why-do-chili-peppers-taste-hot.html. Accessed 31 July 2017.
Greenwood, Veronique. “Food: How spicy flavours trick your tongue.” BBC, 20 Jan. 2015, www.bbc.com/future/story/20150120-hidden-ways-your-tongue-tastes. Accessed 31 July 2017.
Lehrer, Jonah. “Why Does Spicy Food Taste Hot?” Wired, 22 Sept. 2010, www.wired.com/2010/09/why-does-spicy-food-taste-hot/. Accessed 31 July 2017.
Russell, Alex. “Explainer: why chilli burns, and milk helps soothe the pain.” The Conversation, 10 Aug. 2014, theconversation.com/explainer-why-chilli-burns-and-milk-helps-soothe-the-pain-30162. Accessed 31 July 2017.
“Why is it that eating spicy, ‘hot’ food causes the same physical reactions as does physical heat (burning and sweating, for instance)?” Scientific American, 21 Oct. 1999, www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-is-it-that-eating-spi/. Accessed 31 July 2017.
— Isabella S., Pennsylvania