Hurts so good: Neuropsychology and Chili Peppers

Ghost peppers
The world’s hottest peppers, originally grown in Assam Province, Northeast India, epitomize the lure of pain and pleasure. Also known as raja mircha (king chili), ghost peppers or bhut jolokia originated in a region of the country where the cooler temperatures, heavy rains/monsoons, and soil quality made them grow naturally.

Currently, they are served most delectably as a condiment with mounds of rice ladled with curry, lentils, salad, and vegetables. They also pack a punch served with Maggi noodles, a South Asian comfort food, leaving you with a runny nose, sweating face, and a slow burn of volcanic heat.

The neural science
Brain pain receptors are proteins that have a certain shape that only fit specific molecules. Some pain receptors have the correct shape for capsaicin, the heat component of all peppers to fit into, like a lock and a key. When a capsaicin molecule binds to one of these pain receptors, there is a release of neurotransmitters that send a message to the brain. All neurotransmitters are chemicals that are transmitted from one neuron to the next, instant messaging, saying this is HOT. There is a quick burst of endorphins, the pain alleviating neurochemicals. Capsaicin also stimulates the thermo receptors that perceive heat, stimulating sweating and flushing. This actually has a cooling down effect, crucial in hotter climates. Not surprisingly, many countries with extremely hot menus are found in Africa, South Asia, the Caribbean (the Trini Scorpion chili pepper will make you gasp), and South America, where the temperatures are often steamy.

Why yearn for the burn? A sample of the research.
-Longevity: All chili peppers have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticancer (free radical), and blood-glucose regulating effects. Many of the health benefits have specifically been attributed to capsaicin molecules. Additional benefits include lower levels of bad cholesterol, increased metabolism, better gut health, analgesia (increased pain tolerance), and a general boost in immunity.

-Personality: A number of studies have found that more adventurous people are drawn to spicier and more stimulating foods. Chili 🌶 lovers are eager to try new things; willing to take risks; have a higher level of mental flexibility; and may be hungry for a variety of strong emotions, visceral experience, and adventures. This means they have a high degree of curiosity; or in other terms, they may be easily bored.

-Mood: Spicy foods create a safe high. The burst of endorphins produced by biting into a searingly hot pepper creates a burning sensation and then a sense of euphoria.

-Social Interaction:  Sharing hot food creates a sense of connection or similarity. Couples and family research shows that arguing over ‘what to eat for dinner’ is a common source of potential conflict or compromise.  “Because what I eat, what I drink, is in itself the ‘second self’ of my being,” wrote the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Figuring out what each person would like to eat, or not, is part of relational negotiation: do we fit together?

Also see: On nutraceuticals and mental health – Turmeric and Mental Health.

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