Travel & the Brain

Chilli on the Brain: Why Some Like it Hot

Folklore will tell you that eating chilli is beneficial for your well-being. But is there any truth to this and what exactly does it do? Inspired by the ubiquitous pot of chilli sauce in every Colombian kitchen, here I’ll summarise the real science about the effects of chilli on the brain and body.

About ten years ago I read the book Shantaram. Set in India, the vivid accounts of Indian cooking described in the first few chapters sealed the deal for me. I have been pursuing curry ever since.

Any curry will do, as long as its hot. The rush that follows the burning explosion on the tastebuds is part of what got me hooked. Eyes watering, nose perspiring – the feeling is not unlike the adrenaline surge that occurs moments before you’re about to hurl yourself from a dizzying height into rock pools below. Adventure dining, that’s what it is.

colombian chilli sauce

Spicy food is loved by millions of people all over the world. I tend to associate it with eastern countries like India and Thailand but chilli actually originates from Latin America. The small, ‘bird’s eye’ species used to make Tobasco sauce (capsicum frutecens) comes from a region now occupied by southern Brazil at the border regions of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. The more common variety, capsicum annuum, originates from Mexico. It was Christopher Columbus who then introduced the spice to the rest of the world.

Statistically, the hotter the climate, the greater the people’s appetite for chilli in their cooking. Much of this has to do with cultivation as peppers don’t grow very well in cool temperatures. But besides convenience and customisation, chillies serve hot cultures well where germs flourish in the heat and humidity. Chillies have powerful antibacterial properties and applied to meat they help keep things sanitised.

So the story goes… but I have been applying generous helpings of chilli sauce to my food and still, each time we arrive at a place with obscene humidity, I get a bout of food poisoning, almost like a welcome gesture.

Chilli as a Pain Reliever

The burning sensation is what keeps most people away from over doing it with the chilli. If you’ve accidentally rubbed your eyes or nose mid chop, you’ll know all to well that chilli burns the skin too, not just the taste buds.

Counter intuitively, capsicum, the active ingredient in chilli, is actually widely used as a topical analgesic, or pain reliever. Mashed to a paste, it can be applied to soothe muscular pain and even to the gums for tooth ache. After a bit of time, the initial irritation subsides and the pain is numbed as pain receptors become desensitised.

Receptors in the nervous system are like key-holes. If they are blocked or made inactive, they can’t deliver the message to the brain. In the case of pain receptors, if they are made inactive, they fail to send or receive a “pain message” to the brain, and no pain is generated. No pain is felt.

Chilli for Diabetes and Degenerative Disease

The medicinal properties of capsicum do not stop there. Research has shown that eating chilli regularly is one of the best natural ways to prevent diabetes by controlling blood sugar and regulating insulin. One study found that capsicum was effective in reducing the symptoms of gestational diabetes which can occur sometimes in pregnant women. Indirectly, eating chilli can help combat diabetes by boosting metabolism and slowing down weight gain.

The flavonoids, phenolic acids and vitamin A contained in chillies are thought to underlie their anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects. An antioxidant is a molecule that prevents a chemical reaction which ultimately produces “free radicals”. Free radicals can damage cells of the body. In this way, chillies might be able to reduce the chances of developing degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s.

Comparably, some of the lowest recorded rates of this kind of dementia are found in the small villages of India where the Bhut Jolokia (Ghost chilli or Red Naga), claimed to be the most pungent chilli in the world, is consumed in abundance.

So, chilli burns but it can help to kill bacteria and promote physical and cognitive health. Its possible that without really acknowledging these effects, people are drawn to chilli for these protective properties.

Ecuadorian chilli sauce

Chilli Releases Dopamine and Endorphins

Nonetheless, not altogether surprising given the rush of adrenaline that a bite of chilli seems to generate, capsicum has been shown to stimulate dopamine in the brain’s reward centres. This neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, not only keeps you coming back for more, but it is the source of our feelings of excitement and positive expectation, the sense that “something interesting” will follow. In the case of a hot and spicy meal, lewd jokes aside, this certainly seems to be the case.

Why does this happen? Capsicum plays tricks on your brain. The burning sensation that chillies cause on first contact initiate a “pain signal” and the brain responds to these signals by releasing a different set of brain chemicals to deal with the pain. These include not only dopamine, which assists in preparing you for action, but also endorphins – the brain’s natural painkillers. This is a defence mechanism, similar to the reaction of your body to prolonged, painful exercise and it explains how chillies deactivate pain siganalling.

The brain’s chemical response to capsicum is, essentially, the same way that it responds to adventure sports and it is that euphoric buzz that likely explains why chilli is one of the world’s favourite spices.

Try out some of our favourite chilli recipes that we’ve tried from the region in the images of this article. Please share your favourites recipes below!

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