What is a «pepper high»?
Sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami are different types of tastes that we perceive with our tongue. Spiciness, however, is a physical reaction to pain. The capsaicin in chilli peppers, piperine in pepper, allicin in garlic and gingerol in ginger all irritate the ends of pain-conducting nerve fibres. These react to the spicy substances as though they were experiencing heat above 43° degrees, and therefore report a sensation of pain to the brain.
Our body reacts to this by increasing blood flow to the tissue. In small amounts, the effect is stimulating and enhances our taste experience. Larger quantities, however, can lead to sweating and hot flushes – and also to what is known as a «pepper high». This is when our body tries to relieve the pain by releasing endorphins, colloquially known as the happy hormones.
Spicy food can have a beneficial impact on our health on several levels:
- Spicy food can aid digestion. It stimulates the secretion of gastric juice, making it easier to digest fatty foods, in particular.
- Spicy substances in food increase the flow of saliva. This in turn can have a positive effect on dental health.
- As a result of spicy food, tissue is better supplied with blood, our body temperature rises and this boosts our metabolism.
- When suffering from a cold, eating spicy food can have a mucus-dissolving effect. And because mucous membranes, such as those in the nose, are better supplied with blood, spicy food can also clear a blocked nose.
However, those who have a sensitive stomach, or are prone to diarrhoea or heartburn should exercise caution when eating spicy food. People who suffer from kidney or urinary bladder diseases and young children should also avoid spicy foods.
Can spicy food help with weight loss?
Spicy food can cause the body temperature to rise. We sweat, and the sweat cools the body down again. This process costs energy. In addition, spicy food stimulates digestion and metabolism. Furthermore, spicy food tends to make people eat more slowly and the feeling of satiety sets in earlier.
Eating chilli peppers is healthy, but not in every quantity
There are actually about 4,000 varieties of chilli peppers in the world, all differing in appearance and colour. How hot the chilli peppers are also depends on how much sun they have received. Accordingly, chillies from a greenhouse are milder than those grown outdoors. Chilli peppers are used for cooking in different ways: fresh, dried, ground or in sauces. «Beginners» are advised to use chilli powder to start with, because it's easier to dose than fresh chilli peppers.
In order to measure the content of the above-mentioned capsaicin – and thus the pungency level – in different foods, the Scoville scale can be used. The following foods are rated according to their capsaicin content:
- 0 – 10: Bell peppers
- 100 – 500: Banana peppers
- 2’500 – 5’000: Tabasco sauce
- 30'000 – 50’000: Pure cayenne pepper
- 100'000 – 200’000: Pepper spray
- 100'000 – 350’000: Habaneros
- 9'000’000: Mad Dog 357 No.9 Plutonium spiciest chilli sauce
- 16'000’000: Pure capsaicin in crystal form
The capsaicin contained in chilli also enables food to be preserved naturally. Capsaicin has an antibacterial and fungicidal effect, thus inhibiting the formation of mould.
If something is too spicy for your taste, drink something fatty. The famous glass of milk – or also yoghurt or a piece of cheese – provides relief, since capsaicin is lipophilic, i.e. fat-soluble. Even if a dish has been seasoned too spicily, cream or coconut milk, as well as sugary ingredients such as honey, can temper the spiciness.