We’ve written before about the bizarrely complicated relationship between spicy food and dating, in which we discovered that women actually enjoy spicy food more than man (despite men claiming to enjoy it more). As for why anyone enjoys the sensation of their mouth catching fire in the first place, Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says it’s all about your upbringing. “We don’t know why, within culture, there are so many differences,” says Rozin. “Mostly, it has to do with exposure.”
But be it man or woman of any background or ethnicity, what does all that prickly heat really do to your body, your brain, and yes, your butthole? Take a spicy, spicy journey with me, starting with your insides…
The Good Stuff
Last year, a study from Arizona State University found that chili peppers could help suppress your appetite and melt away calories. That’s because capsaicinoids (the active ingredient that gives chili peppers their spicy kick) was found to be linked with a person’s fat burning ability. “The innovation of the study is to validate the effectiveness of capsaicinoids during the first real-time tracking of an individual’s metabolism,” study author Yue Deng told ASU Now. “It is important to measure the metabolism change with intake of the capsaicinoids, which is the most straightforward way to tell people this actually works or not.”
According to the report, the people who took the capsaicinoid supplements burned, on average, 130 calories per day, while the people from the control group only reflected an average energy burn of 8 calories per day. “For the calorie counters among us, that 122 calorie-per-day difference is like burning off an extra can of soda every day (150 calories), a medium latte, or for the truly nutritionally tempted, an ounce of potato chips,” reported ASU Now.
If that’s not enough to convince you to stand in front of your fridge with a pepper in one hand and a carton of milk in the other to wash down the pain, this next study, as reported by CNN in 2015, surely will. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences collected data on half a million people’s eating habits between 2004 and 2008, then reviewed the records of the 20,224 who had died over the following seven years. They found that participants who ate spicy food six or seven times a week lowered their risk of premature death by 14 percent compared to those who ate spicy food less than once a week.
Once again, you can thank capsaicin for this. But like all things good, it’s not without its consequences…
The Bad Stuff
If this magical spiciness really keeps you alive longer, why does it feel like fiery armageddon for your taint? Blame your TRPV1 receptors, which, according to Thrillist, exist all throughout your body, and whose job is to detect heat.
“When you eat, say, a habañero, the capsaicin isn’t completely digested. As it passes through your digestive tract, it triggers TRPV1 receptors, which is why some people experience cramps or an upset stomach after eating something particularly spicy. By the time the digested food reaches your anus, there’s still capsaicin in the food waste and your butt feels the burn,” reports Thrillist.
According to Livestrong, a study published in the April 2010 issue of Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility claimed that the reason some people experience really bad stomach and digestive issues when they eat spicy food is because they have more TRPV1 receptors in their intestines. “If you have non-erosive reflux disease — a form of gastroesophageal reflux disease — you may also have additional receptors,” reports Livestrong. It’s important to note that while spicy foods can irritate already existing gastrointestinal issues, eating too much spicy food can’t cause them.
Of course, the burn in your butt on the way out is way worse than the burn in your gut. Luigi Basso, a specialist in coloproctology and laparoscopic surgery at Sapienza University of Rome in Italy, told Men’s Health that this is down to the type of cells found down under. “Since the last part of your anal region — your rectum and anus — is lined by cells similar to those in your mouth, spicy foods can burn just as much on the way out as on the way in,” said Basso.
What Spice Does to Your Brain
As it turns out, there’s a scientific reason for enjoying spice, and it has everything to do with how your brain interprets it. Rozin notes that only humans enjoy the taste of spicy food: “We mean maybe 25 to 50 percent of humans on earth, and virtually no non-human mammals. It’s innately negative, but exposure in certain cultural contexts produces liking,” says Rozin.
To his point, according to Helix Magazine, a publication by Science Society, a Northwestern University research center, the spicy effect of peppery food is actually playing a trick on your brain. “Capsaicinoids trick the brain into thinking it is being burned, which is a painful experience, through the transmission of neurotransmitters,” reports Helix. “One such message produced by capsaicinoids is substance P, which transmits pain signals.” When the brain sense pain, it releases endorphins to help relieve it, and endorphins feel good. “Additionally, the neurotransmitter dopamine, responsible for a sense of reward and pleasure, is also released,” reports Helix. The end result is a sort of euphoric high.
The trickery doesn’t stop there: Another reason spicy food could help you live longer is because people who eat it tend to eat less salt (and therefore have lower blood pressure), because it significantly decreases a person’s preference for salt via their brain. That’s according to a study by researchers in China: “The researchers found that the more that people in the study said they enjoyed spicy flavors, the more sensitive they were to saltiness and the lower their threshold was for considering something too salty,” reported Live Science.
According to the same report, researchers found that the areas of the brain that were stimulated by salt overlapped the areas stimulated by spiciness. They also discovered that spiciness increased brain activity in areas that would have been activated by the taste of salt. “Spicy food may trick the brain into perceiving that the person is tasting a salty food,” Zhiming Zhu, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at Third Military Medical University in Chongqing, China, told Live Science. “Spiciness makes a person taste a higher level of saltiness, even when a reduced amount of salt is actually consumed,” he added.
Spicy food isn’t just about tricking your brain, though — it could help fix it, too. In 2015, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, D’Or Institute for Research and Education and Federal University of Bahia found that the naturally occurring flavonoids in red pepper (also referred to as apigenin), could help prevent against mental health problems like schizophrenia, depression, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
“When it comes to its mechanism of action, apigenin works by binding to estrogen receptors. These hormones affect the development, function and plasticity of the nervous system. Thus, this group is linked with the delay in onset of mental health problems and neurodegenerative disorders,” reported Tech Times.
All of which is to say, if your butthole can withstand the heat, you’ll be all the better for it.