science of us

Can Hot Peppers Make Me Happy?

Photo: David Murray/Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley

Recently I’ve been experimenting with mood-modification through temperature extremes (like hot and cold bathing). The heat of a sauna, for instance, supposedly triggers a rush of pleasurable hormones — and so, apparently, does the heat of a chili pepper. I like hot sauce, and this seemed like a good enough excuse to experiment.

For a beginner’s lesson on the mood-altering properties of capsaicin (which is sometimes used in pain relief), I got in touch with Matt Gross, a travel writer and hot pepper expert who’s currently at work on a hot pepper documentary called Hot Pursuit. We met up one recent evening at his Brooklyn apartment to taste increasingly hot peppers while he fielded my questions about what it is that people like about pain.

One rationale is that it’s a form of “controlled risk,” or a way of enjoying the thrill of pain and fear without actually feeling threatened (roller coasters and scary movies do the same thing). Eating spicy peppers also triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, which are two of the brain’s natural painkillers, and which can result in a kind of stressor-induced “high” (akin to “runner’s high”).

When we experience any kind of stress, the body chooses whether to fight or flee. And eating hot peppers “definitely triggers the ‘fight’ response,” Gross said, “because once you have a hot chili in your mouth, there’s nowhere to go.”

As we ate the peppers, this seemed demonstrably true — the jalapeño was spicy but manageable, and the “long green” chili was a breeze, but the habanero just kept building. After minutes of pain, it somehow expanded up the inside of my nose and to the outside of my mouth. Our body’s response to hot peppers, Gross explained, is that our brain actually thinks something hot — literally hot, over 140 degrees — is touching us, so it activates our “hot-thing protocol,” which includes sweating, flushing, and even vomiting. “If you drank a cup of 150-degree water,” he told me, “the same receptors on your tongue would do the same thing: they’d tell your brain, ‘Oh my god, there’s something hot in your mouth.’”

So basically, when we eat hot peppers, “The body thinks something has happened that hasn’t happened.”

A recent study suggests that the capsaicin in peppers might also act as an antidepressant (for rats, at least), and I was curious to hear more about the social role chilis play among people.

Chilis “teach us to deal with our own discomfort,” Gross said. This in turn makes us more honest, compassionate, and resilient — or so his reasoning goes (and, by extension, happier and more at peace?): “When you’re sweating and panting and you can’t get words out,” he said, “the words you can get out have to be real ones.” And the “shared discomfort” of eating chilis in a group can lead to a sense of bonding and eventual euphoria after the fact, which can “make us all slightly more accepting of one other’s awkwardnesses.”

It was definitely nice to be eating the peppers with Gross, instead of on my own, although becoming overwhelmed with heat is more of an inward-facing experience. By that point in our conversation, I’d long since ditched my glasses and put my hair up to better wipe away my tears and sweat. It was embarrassing to be losing my composure and risk being laughed at (his wife and two young daughters were also at home), but because Gross was also visibly sweating, it felt better, funnier. “It’s honesty in a fruit,” he said.

After the habanero had worn off and I was preparing to leave, Gross remembered a little yellow pepper he had, which we split. He didn’t give it much introduction, and at first it just tasted fresh, so I thought maybe nothing was going to happen. (Later Gross identified it as a lemon drop pepper or, “more likely, a fatalii.”)

“It’s not hitting you?” Gross asked me, his eyes watering.

“No,” I said.

But then it did, and I thought again of what he said about how you can’t flee from a pepper you’ve just eaten. As we walked down the stairs of his apartment building, my mouth filled with drool and I wanted to spit, but I kept it in until we’d said goodbye and I was on my own on the sidewalk.

On my way to the subway, I spit out drool every hundred feet or so, and I waited to get on a train until the drooling subsided.

It wasn’t exactly euphoria or the heady, “tantric” experience that Gross had at one point described. (“Enjoying the pain and the pleasure at the same time is like surfing a wave,” he’d said, “and you just don’t want it to break.”) I’d wanted to feel joyful and at peace, like I had after my trips to the sauna, but instead I felt mostly tired and relieved.

Was that fun? I thought.

I don’t know. But I had taken some habanero home with me, and I nibbled on it throughout the week. I now think back on the experience fondly, and it reminds me of a haiku from Cape Cod hot sauce maker Rooster Fricke, whom I lived down the street from briefly, called “The Chili:”

Ooooh! It’s way too hot.

I will not do that again.

Until the next time.

Can Hot Peppers Make Me Happy?