Mild, medium, hot, or atomic, whatever your spice tolerance, spicy food is a universal experience. From the spice enthusiasts that are constantly chasing that next level of heat to the moderate folks that enjoy a splash of Tabasco on their morning eggs, whichever camp you may fall into, you have undoubtedly had an experience with spicy food. The exposure and experience with spicy food may depend on the types of spices and herbs used in cultural cuisines, but most spicy cuisines around the world contain a common ingredient: a compound found in red peppers known as capsaicin. This spice molecule contributes to the physical responses, such as sweating, crying and thirst for water when eating spicy food. Although capsaicin is a naturally occurring compound mostly found in red peppers, the discovery of why the body reacts to capsaicin, and other spicy compounds, was only recently awarded the Nobel Prize.
In 2021, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to researchers David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discovery of the receptors responsible for temperature and touch. Even though there had been studies recorded as far back as the 1950’s where researchers discovered a phenomenon, known as gustatory sweating or sweating induced by contact with hot peppers with mouth or lips, the exact mechanism for why this occurred was not well studied until the late 1990’s with Julius’ and Patapoutians’ work. Their work unveiled a heat sensing receptor that is part of a large gene superfamily. This gene superfamily is activated by environmental stressors which triggers a host response. An example of this is salivating upon contact with spicy food in order to flush out the compound from the area of contact. The discovery of the heat sensing receptor helped shed light towards better understanding the mechanism behind the electrical signals in the peripheral nervous system that are triggered by environmental stressors such as capsaicin. If the idea of unpleasant heat sensations and gustatory sweating doesn’t sound like an appealing experience, don’t turn away yet because you might be missing out on some important health benefits that capsaicin can add to your life.
The use of natural products as medicines is the oldest form of drug discovery. In ancient human history, “old wives tales” would be the commonly cited sources for ailment cures, passed along from generation to generation. If, how or why the cures worked was often not well documented or well understood with the scientific capabilities of the time. Nowadays, the drug discovery process is far more streamlined and documented, even if the medicines used are the same ones that were also used in ancient times. An example of such an ancient natural remedy is capsaicin which, in the late 1850’s, was used as a topical pain reliever for burning or itching. Today capsaicin is approved either directly or off-label for postoperative nausea and vomiting, and psoriasis as well as other ailments. In addition to pharmacological applications, foods that are high in capsaicin have been known to help reduce tumor formation and size, and reduce inflammation as well as helping lower glucose and cholesterol levels in patients. In a study, participants that reported eating spicy food daily had a 14% decrease in death compared to people who ate spicy food less than once a week. A theory that was developed from this study was that the increase in spicy food decreased individual salt preference which reduced intake by the participants. Additionally, patients who ate spicy food regularly saw a decrease in weight due to decreased appetite from the spice heavy diets. Spicy food isn’t just an enjoyable category of cuisine but it can also be a medicine. Next time you eat something spicy and begin to regret your life choices, just remember, your body is reacting naturally and you may even live longer from that experience.
Peer Editor: Brittany Shepherd
Illustrator: Emily Jennings Tallerday