The Love of Pain

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[This article was originally written in German]

Humans are the only mammals that willingly do things to hurt themselves. Your nose is running, dripping from your forehead, your throat is burning like hell – some people just can’t quit the spicy food. Masochism? Or purely a matter of habit?

According to the Guinness Book of Records the Carolina Reaper is the spiciest chili in the world. Eat too much of it and you’re dealing with heart attacks, cramps and even death. Responsible for this is a substance called capsaicin that is found in pepper species. Plants protect themselves with capsaicin so as not to be gobbled up, functioning as an excellent natural insect repellent. Capsaicin is actually a neurotoxin that stimulates our pain receptors and warns our nervous system: hands off!

People touch it anyway, of course. Similar to alcohol, spicy food warms us, although no actual increase in temperature occurs. The activated warmth receptors stimulate better circulation in the blood vessels. That goes for the mucus membranes as well, which in turn stimulate the taste buds: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami suddenly taste much more intense.

Now everything tastes better, but it still hurts, sometimes so much so that we can’t taste any other flavors. Nature has a wonderful solution for this: the pain causes an increased release of natural pain relievers, opiod peptides produced in the body, i.e. endorphins. Accepting pain for a bit of intoxication, you can safely say that spicy food makes you high. Spicy food is also addictive. In fact, it works like a drug, which does nothing more than trigger the release of various substances in our brains.

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A South Korean study claims that people who like spicy food are much more likely to become alcoholics. Their addictive potential, or more precisely, reward potential, is very similar. Following this, shouldn’t Russian cuisine be super spicy? No matter. Spiciness is very much an aphrodisiac – so much of German cuisine…

Images and a good recipe for chili flakes: gemmagarner.com

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