This Is Your Brain on Capsaicin


When it comes to food, there are two types of people in this world: those who EAT TO LIVE and those who LIVE TO EAT. I, unapologetically, belong to the second group. I am a foodie through and through! If I hadn’t become a scientist, I would have become a chef or a baker. Whenever I’m having a bad day, food has the ability to cheer me up. When I’m having a great day, food is how I celebrate. My favorite foods have generally included anything that is fried, but recently I’ve acquired a craving for all things spicy, especially peppers.

A few years ago, I swore up and down that spicy food was not for me! “I would have to be insane to want to eat something so spicy it brings me to tears,” I would tell my now hubby, who has always had an affinity for spicy foods. Inevitably, he got me to try a spicy dish that he ordered and my life changed. I’m not going to lie, that first taste was rough. My mouth and lips were on FIRE!! I probably downed a whole glass of cold water to get any kind of relief from the burn. However, with each new bite of spicy food I started to get used to the sensation and almost even craved it. Soon I was eating entire dishes of spicy food on my own and slowly but surely I started seeking out things that were hotter and hotter. You could almost say I’ve developed an “addiction” to spicy food, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Although you can come to crave spicy foods, your body will not develop a dependence on them like you would to truly addicting molecules like caffeine or nicotine. However, there is some very real chemistry and neuroscience involved in that craving for spicy food.

So let’s talk some food science! That painful burning associated with the consumption of a chili pepper comes from compounds known as capsaicinoids, the most well-known of which is capsaicin. (FUN FACT: Capsaicinoids are derived from the compound vanillin, which gives vanilla its delicious taste and smell.) Surprisingly, their “hotness” or “spiciness” is not a taste but rather a sensation. There are no taste buds associated with capsaicinoids.

capsaicin molecule

When they reach the tongue, capsaicinoids interact with a special type of protein located on the surface of nerve cells. This protein, called TRPV1, acts a sensor for the cell giving it information about the outside world. Normally, TRPV1 gets turned on by physical heat, like a fire, above 109˚F (43˚C). This signal will turn the nerve cell on to allow it to trigger other nerve cells that will carry the message to the brain that it has to respond to this dangerous temperature (think of it as your neurons playing telephone).  When capsaicinoids interact with TRPV1 they also turn the protein on and cause the same signal to be transmitted to the brain into thinking it is being burned even though there is no real heat present. Note: TRPV1 is actually present on nerve cells in many locations on the body so this burning sensation can be experienced elsewhere, which is why you should always wash your hands after dealing with chili peppers, especially before touching your eyes!

Now that we know why peppers are hot, you might be asking yourself, “Why exactly would anyone seek out this burning sensation?” The answer to this question can be found in the way our brains are wired. Capsaicinoids trick the brain into thinking it is being burned, which is a painful experience, through the transmission of neurotransmitters. Remember, earlier when I said your neurons play telephone. Well, when your body senses pain somewhere like the tongue that message has to make it to the brain. The message is sent from the location it is initially generated to the brain through a network of neurons by talking to each other via neurotransmitters, which are essentially chemical messages. One such message produced by capsaicinoids is substance P, which transmits pain signals. The brain responds by releasing another type of neurotransmitter known as endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural way of relieving pain by blocking the nerve’s ability to transmit pain signals. Additionally, the neurotransmitter dopamine, responsible for a sense of reward and pleasure, is also released. In essence, for some people eating large amounts of spicy food triggers a sense of euphoria similar to a “runner’s high”.

So next time you need a little pick-me-up consider giving into the power of the chili pepper and discover why chiliphiles have come to love the burn!

To learn more about chilies visit:




I have been eating chili

I have been eating chili peppers on a regular basis.  I have always said the reason I love them so much is because they act like a mild stimulant and I feel great.  Now I know why, thanks!

True. Eating spicy food like

True. Eating spicy food like hot peppers activates areas of our brain related to both pleasure and pain. You might want to add some spice to your diet after reading this. Thanks for sharing this informative article.

I've been tracking my

I've been tracking my menstrual cycles with an app that explains common hormone fluctuation. Several of the days explain that the body while experiencing a rise in progesterone which would make a woman tired and moody, the body craves caffeine, shopping (spending money), sweet foods or other short term rewards. I am now experiencing moodiness indicating I am in a progesterone spike and have been intensely eating and craving extremely spicy foods. I realize now that this is a way of my brain seeking out a short term reward through capsaicin burn and endorphin release. Amazing what one will learn about him/her self through science. Thank you for writing this.

30yrs ago just the thought of

30yrs ago just the thought of mild sauce on my taco made me sweat. I avoided 'hot' stuff until I ate a Habanero on a dare about 9yrs ago. Now over the last 7 years I have steadily increased my overwhelming desire for hot peppers and spicy foods. My family and friends cannot believe what I eat and constantly comment 'how can you do that'? The 'high' is what I seem to crave...but in a good way.  I eat less, eat healthier, and have lost 188 lbs. Remembering that the hot pepper has to be the first thing eaten at each meal. Just 'food' for thought.

I grew up in SoCal, so

I grew up in SoCal, so Mexican food was just normal.  And I almost daily use some kind of hot suace on my food.  But yesterday I sampled one of my wife's home grown japeno peppers.  It burnt like crazy!  I had taken

a big bite off the end.  But today I started eating verry small cuts from the seeded shell.  And I am doing so now as I write.  Something special has happened as it doesn't burn as much, but just nicely!  And I feel some kind of wonderment which I told my wife, and she brought up this site for me to read. Yeah, I love the taste and feeling!  So I guess the analysis stated expains what I am feeling.  But I have never gotten it in the past from just using "hot sauce".  This little jalapena is HOT HOT HOt!  I would never think of enjoying anything so burning.  But by sampling little snippets from the shelled pepper I am addicted, mainly from the taste and good feeling that goes with it. *In fact just had another "hit"!  So good!

I always keep a jar of hot

I always keep a jar of hot (NOT tamed) pickled jalapenos in the house, or collections of very spicy chips, dips or raw hot peppers. I not only absolutely love the taste of most hot peppers for their combined salty-sweetness, but I always just loved the act of eating them. Now I understand why I love spicy food so much. It's like an antidepressant without a perscription! 

My husband will eat spicy

My husband will eat spicy food and sweat profusely only on the right side of his forehead. The right side will be dripping and the left side will be completely  dry. Why would this be? 

We are puzzled. Thank you

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