This is your brain on spicy food

Shun anything spicy, is what I did until I was well into my 30s.  Even the ‘mild’ sauce option was a no-go for me at restaurants.  Then came a New Mexico bus tour guide.  His explanation to us of why people get hooked on spicy food changed my food life, literally.  It’s because spicy foods make you feel good!  It’s an endorphin release.  So, the me who has always believed in the power of endorphins when it came to exercise and chocolate, resolved to test out the effect of spicy foods.

First, the important thing:  How do you get relief from the burning sensation when the heat gets to be too much?

  • Take another bite.  This will only cool things off for a brief moment, because eventually you run out of the food you are eating.
  • Drink milk.  This will soften the burn.  Other dairy works too, such as sour cream or cream cheese.  Milk had always been my go-to relief, and the tour guide confirmed it is the best relief.
  • Water and soda pop don’t work.  The soda actually magnifies the sensation.  The tour guide confirmed this, too.

milk carton sm x2

Ways to start adapting your palate to spicy foods:

  • Picante sauce.  If you usually get mild, try medium by using less sauce and keeping milk or sour cream at hand for a quick cool down.
  • Rotel tomatoes and melted cheese dip.  Aka, ‘Queso’.  Who doesn’t know how to make this tailgating staple?  It’s got your spicy hot flavor and dairy combined in one scrumptious dip.  Rotel makes several options for how hot you want it.

Rotel page2


  • Hot Italian sausage.
    • Make it your go-to pizza topping.
    • Substitute it for ground beef in homemade Spaghetti and Lasagna.
  • BBQ Hot Links.  Almost every barbecue restaurant around here offers hot links on their menu.  It’s my standing order.  For home cooking, I like to buy my spicy hot links here.
  • Spicy jams and jellies.  If you don’t see them on your grocery shelf, try the nearest farmer’s market, or order it online.  I order from Simply Homemade, a maker in Minnesota.  She and I have been friends for several years, because of her hot pepper jellies, and our shared love of ’60s music.  (Scroll down on her page for the hot pepper jellies.)  The jellies are great on buttered toast or Ritz crackers.  To control the heat, first spread a layer of cream cheese, then dab the jelly on top of the cheese.

Grow your own?  For the first time, I’m trying to grow peppers.  Apparently, I got them planted too late in the season, so I haven’t been able to pick any yet.  There are a bunch of little growing peppers and blossoms on the plant, so I’m trying to keep the plant from freezing.  I badly want my first-ever harvest of Poblanos.


More from the web on spicy foods and their mood-elevating effects:

1.  From Northwestern University.  “Now that we know why peppers are hot, you might be asking yourself, “Why exactly would anyone seek out this burning sensation?” The answer to this question can be found in the way our brains are wired. Capsaicinoids trick the brain into thinking it is being burned, which is a painful experience, through the transmission of neurotransmitters. Remember, earlier when I said your neurons play telephone. Well, when your body senses pain somewhere like the tongue that message has to make it to the brain. The message is sent from the location it is initially generated to the brain through a network of neurons by talking to each other via neurotransmitters, which are essentially chemical messages. One such message produced by capsaicinoids is substance P, which transmits pain signals. The brain responds by releasing another type of neurotransmitter known as endorphins. Endorphins are the body’s natural way of relieving pain by blocking the nerve’s ability to transmit pain signals. Additionally, the neurotransmitter dopamine, responsible for a sense of reward and pleasure, is also released. In essence, for some people eating large amounts of spicy food triggers a sense of euphoria similar to a “runner’s high”.  Source:

2.  From “If you haven’t jumped on the Sriracha bandwagon yet, maybe you’ll want to after reading this. Spicy food, that oh-so-tingling, burning, get-it-out-of-my-mouth food, actually induces a natural high minutes after eating it. And hey, the spicier the better.

Chili peppers in particular contain high levels of the substance capsaicin, which causes the burning sensation in spicy food. The chemical has been proven before to work as a topical painkiller for arthritis, and also forces the brain to release endorphins. “The endorphins work to block the heat,” Paul Bosland, cofounder and director of New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute, told ABC News in 2012. “The body produces them in response to the heat, which it senses as pain.” The result: a strong head buzz and numbness.

Some research even suggests capsaicin in higher levels can have mildly hallucinogenic effects. According to History, Mayans used them over 9,000 years ago as stimulants, while today’s chili eaters have reported seeing objects that weren’t even in the room and losing feelings in body parts.”  Source:

3.  Chile Facts‘ is a useful information page on the various hot peppers.

So there you go.  If you’ve always shunned spicy foods, you may be denying yourself a great dose of endorphins.  Pour yourself a big glass of milk, and try to expand the limits of your taste buds.

And yes, the title of this post comes from the 1980s commercial.  It’s still true.


15 thoughts on “This is your brain on spicy food

  1. This was a fun read! 😀 I do like moderately spiced foods, although it’s hard to compare to your list because here in Europe we tend to get spiced Asian foods rather than Mexican. Chilli peppers are universal of course, but those other things I’ve never heard about, in spite of my many stays in Texas and Arizona (how did I manage not to learn the names? I’m sure I ate those things!). I also find that I like some hot spices but not others. For example, Indian cooking has a very large variety of spices, mostly hot, and some I like and others I don’t, regardless of the degree of heat. Something else must be going on there! As for exercise, I get no endorphines release there – this too is not universal. I typically just get bored. :-s Chocolate works though! 😀 But running while munching on chocolate is counter-productive, I think. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually thought about mentioning Indian and Asian foods, but I don’t have enough experience cooking with them to feel confident in writing about them. Just the mere mention of ‘curry’ has me wanting Indian food! You are so lucky to have access to those foods in your region. We have quite a bit of Asian, but not so much Indian. We also have Cajun spicy here in the US, that I didn’t mention. I too like certain spicy flavors better than others. For example, jalapeno peppers are universally popular here, but I don’t like their flavor at all. Thanks for the fun comment!


      1. Actually, I prefer Japanese, Korean, Thai and Chinese, in that order. I do like Mexican but proper Mexican or Tex-Mex and not the supermarket stuff that we mostly see here. There is a lot of Indian in the UK, and I like a lot of it, except curry. 🙄 Just don’t like that flavour at all. Go figure!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m embarrassed to admit that I prefer the more ‘Americanized’ Mexican food than the traditional; although there are a few traditional dishes that I love. I do like Tex-Mex. Similarly, with Asian food, I’m only familiar with the more mainstream options, but I do like those. That’s funny you don’t like curry, which is the main flavor that makes me want to try more Indian dishes.


  2. Come hang out in the Borderland! I had to learn to like spicy foods where I live in El Paso because there is simply no other option. When in doubt, just smother something in Hatch chiles.


      1. If you can get your hands on real Mexican sour cream, do it. Milk is alright, but real Mexican sour cream cuts through the burn AND tastes amazing with everything. Also, I got some amazing ground chipotle from and I put that mess on everything. It is so smokey, you’ll never look back.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post… When I was younger I didn’t know what I was trying at a Japanese place and it was wasabi… It took me a while to try something spicy again…Now I love spicy things again. We get a Strawberry Jalapeno Jam from The Nashville Jam Co…it is excellent. Sweet and spicy go together great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment got caught up in the spam filter. Sorry about that! WordPress has such an amazingly intuitive spam filter, that I’ve gotten lax about checking what’s in there. I’m going to look up the Nashville Jam Co. I’ll probably stay loyal to my Minnesota source, but can’t hurt to have a backup. Thanks for the tip. I didn’t bring up Wasabi because I don’t have much experience using it in the kitchen. But it’s another good one, well worth mentioning here. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lately I’ve had a lot of people caught in my spam filter… I know how you feel.
        So funny because I have a vendor (friend now) that my wife and I ordered the strawberry spicy jelly for and he lives in Minnesota…I will tell him about Simply Homemade…
        Wasabi is off my spicy list… What I had was too hot.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I can take Wasabi in tiny doses. I never got a first bad burn from it, like it sounds like you had. That is interesting about the Minnesota connection! I think I’ll mention it to my friend too.

        Liked by 1 person

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