The Spice of Life
When out in a restaurant you'd think I would have learned not to order the spiciest thing on the menu by now after my mouth burning, forehead sweating and eyes running after eating, but there’s something about a chili pepper that I can’t resist.
That something, it turns out, is capsaicin, a chemical compound produced by chilies to ward off unwanted consumers. The higher the concentration of capsaicin in a chili, the hotter it is.
Capsaicin stimulates a type of cell that is responsible for transmitting touch, sound, light, taste, and other sensory stimuli to the brain. These cells, known as sensory neurons, receive information about their external environment via protein molecules called receptors. Receptors are the electronic keypads of the molecular world – they can only be activated or deactivated by specific hormones, drugs, or toxins containing the appropriate code.
Capsaicin activates the same receptor that signals neurons to transmit information about heat and pain to your brain. When capsaicin activates this receptor, neurons send a message to your brain that your mouth is truly on fire, tricking your brain into thinking that your body temperature has skyrocketed and inducing unpleasant reactions such as sweating, flushing, running nose, and crying.
Although capsaicin produces a burning, painful sensation when you bite into a chili, it also triggers the release of pleasure chemicals that make us feel exhilarated and euphoric. Once capsaicin activates the heat receptor, a chemical known as substance P transmits a pain message from the neurons to the brain. When the brain registers pain, it responds with a dose of self-medication: the release of endorphins.
At the same time substance P is causing pain, it also rewards that pain by prompting release of dopamine, the chemical version of positive reinforcement. Besides chilies, certain foods, sex, and drugs can trigger the release of dopamine.
As an orgasim releases dopamine, no wonder I'm addicted to sex, I better lay off those chillies!
Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute