Your Summer Savior Lies in This Noxious Chemical

It gnawed at Darren Ryan's insides, a dread with gnashing teeth... the kind you'd get just before skydiving.

Except Darren wasn't about to jump off of a plane in midair. He and his 23-year-old son were about to set foot into the Aladin restaurant in London's Brick Lane – an area known for its curry restaurants.

The duo specifically came there to eat what has been called the "hottest curry in London": phall curry.

The extreme spiciness comes from the hodgepodge of chili peppers, including the Naga Viper pepper that took the 2011 Guinness World Records title of "World's Hottest Chili."

One reviewer who ate the same dish said it left him "sweating out the entirety of [his] body's water content and crying like [he had] just watched Marley and Me."

With the recent heat wave that swept the nation, the last thing you'd probably want to reach for is a piping-hot dish of spicy curry. Your natural inclination would be to reach for an ice-cold beverage... or a refreshing fruit salad... or a bit of ice cream.

But as it turns out, tucking into a dish that'll sear your tongue will help you stay cool in all this heat...

It starts with a natural chemical called capsaicin that gives chili peppers their incredible heat.

On our tongues, the capsaicin molecule interacts with a protein called a vanilloid, or TRPV1 receptor. These receptors are typically found in our nerve cells, or neurons. And that includes nociceptor neurons involved in the detecting and processing of harmful stimuli. So it makes sense that TRPV1 receptors have a hand in how we sense pain. They also have another important job... helping to regulate body temperature.

Capsaicin is just one member of a gang of irritants that can set off a TRPV1 receptor. Examples of others include:

  • Low pH, or acidic substances.
  • High temperatures above 109 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Allyl isothiocyanate, which gives horseradish its pungent kick. (Remember what happened during the last time you inadvertently ate a glob of wasabi with that bite of sushi?)

Once capsaicin molecules activate TRPV1 receptors, that makes your brain think you're suddenly facing a dangerous onslaught of heat. To extinguish that fire, the thermostat-like hypothalamus in your brain tells your body to flip the "on" switch for cooldown...

Your blood vessels widen, moving them closer to the skin's surface and opening them up for more blood flow. Both actions result in better heat dissipation from the skin.

Your sweat glands become activated, too, for another cooldown mechanism.

As for how sweating cools you down, it all comes down to evaporation, or transforming liquids into gases...

Liquid water comprises a bunch of H2O molecules stuck together. Getting to a gaseous state means breaking up all of those bonds. And that task demands energy – in the form of heat. So by changing from liquid to gas, that process moves even more heat away from your body.

Another advantage of challenging your tastebuds this way has to do with the huge sense of relief that washes over you after...

Thinking that your tongue is on fire, your brain fires off a lot of endorphins and dopamine – the "feel good" chemicals that bring on a state of relief and happiness.

Plus, the endorphins bind to opioid receptors, which trigger a process to prevent the release of chemicals involved in making you feel pain. So you essentially get pain relief in the wake of that initial shock.

But like all things in life, moderation should be your mantra...

If you eat too much capsaicin, you could experience acid reflux, heartburn, nausea, and even death if you have existing heart problems.

As for me, I'll probably steer clear of phall curry and most hot sauces. I do like sprinkling red pepper flakes on my chili and adding fresh jalapenos (sans seeds) on sandwiches.

But if things get too spicy for me...

I don't chug water. It'll just spread the oily capsaicin to even more TRVP1 receptors all around your already-tortured mouth.

Instead, I reach for some milk or a dollop of probiotic-packed Greek yogurt. Dairy has proteins called caseins that surround the offending capsaicin molecules, making it easier for them to get washed away in your mouth.

Finally, just be prepared for what lies hours ahead. Capsaicin unfortunately doesn't break down too well in your gut, so these molecules remain intact... as they exit your body from a spot that has TRVP1 receptors, too.

P.S. Unlike the burn from capsaicin's aftermath you'll likely experience, folks diagnosed with colorectal cancer often experience zero symptoms. And it's the second-leading cause of cancer-related death in the U.S.

I know, I know... There's no fun in getting a colonoscopy. However, I shared some tips to make the process go smoothly in a recent issue of Retirement Millionaire. If you don't receive my flagship newsletter, you can subscribe here.

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 27, 2024