This is what happens to your body when you eat very spicy food

Girl biting habanero chilli pepper. Young woman tasting chilli pepper.
Eating a spicy chilli pepper might make you sweat. (Getty Images)

When it comes to spicy food, can you handle the heat? Some people live for the burning sensation, while others find it harder to tolerate, which has led to some rather drastic measures.

Last week, Denmark made headlines after it recalled spicy ramen noodle products from South Korean brand Samyang. The Danish food authority claimed that the capsaicin levels in the popular ramen noodles could put consumers at risk of "acute poisoning".

Samyang is highly popular for its buldak ramen noodles, which are chicken-flavoured and come in a various levels of spiciness, from mild carbonara or black bean flavours, to the extra hot variety.

In a statement to the BBC, Samyang said: "We understand that the Danish food authority recalled the products, not because of a problem in their quality but because they were too spicy," the firm said in a statement to the BBC.

"The products are being exported globally. But this is the first time they have been recalled for the above reason."

Eating spicy food is common in cultures and cuisines throughout the world. The Brits are no stranger to spice, with a 2023 survey by Dolmio revealing that 32% of Britons love heat and spice so much that they add chilli and other spicy ingredients to every meal.

To find out exactly why our bodies react the way they do to spicy foods, we spoke to the experts about all things fiery.

The hero compound in spicy food is capsaicin, which is found in chili peppers. As soon as this compound touches your tongue, a series of complex sensory and physiological sensations are triggered, according to Rimas Geiga, a registered dietitian and clinical nutritionist at GLOWBAR LDN.

"Initially, capsaicin binds to specific receptors in the mouth that are primarily responsible for detecting heat and pain," he explains.

"This interaction sends signals to the brain, simulating the sensation of physical heat. Despite no actual temperature increase, this neurological trickery often results in a sharp, pungent taste that can be both painful and pleasurable."

The level of spiciness or heat can be measured via the Scoville scale, which records in Scoville heat units (SHU). The concentration of extracted capsaicinoids in a chilli pepper determines its place on the scale, and the higher it is, the spicier.

Table with Scoville scale for most popular chili peppers. Scoville Heat Units, SHU, measurement of pungency, spiciness or heat, based on concentration of capsaicinoids, which capsaicin is predominant.
The Scoville scale is a useful tool to measure spiciness. (Getty Images)

For example, Samyang’s lowest-level ramen comes in at 1,920 SHU, about equivalent to the heat level of a poblano pepper. But their highest-level ramen scores 10,000 SHU, equivalent to a serrano pepper, aleppo pepper or Cheongyang chilli pepper.

According to PepperHead, the new world record for the spiciest pepper is a variety called Pepper X, which measures at 2,693,000 SHU. Previously, the record was held by the Carolina Reaper, at 2,200,000 SHU.

When we eat something spicy, the heat from the capsaicin isn’t just felt on the tongue, but all over the body. We may start to sweat and pant, and our mouths produce more saliva. These are a result of the body’s cooling mechanisms being activated.

"This includes sweating and an increase in heart rate. Sweating helps dissipate the perceived heat via evaporation, while an elevated heart rate accelerates blood flow, promoting heat dissipation across the skin's surface," Geiga says.

"Panting or quickened breathing occurs as the body attempts to increase air flow, cooling the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat. This response is more common in those unaccustomed to spicy foods and can also help expel some of the volatile compounds responsible for the spicy sensation."

Michelle Rosser, co-founder and managing director of Pembrokeshire Chilli Farm, adds: "This is why many people might feel a bit clammy or notice beads of sweat forming on their forehead when they indulge in a hot curry or a peppery salsa.

A man tries a spicy and hot red soup in a restaurant and reacts funny emotionally. Seasonings in the national cuisine and an unhealthy diet with overabundance of pepper
Eating a spicy dish can make us feel like we're in pain because of the way capsaicin reacts with our receptors. (Getty Images)

"The sensation of heat and the pain from the capsaicin can also stimulate our body’s fight-or-flight response, leading to an increase in our heart rates and irritating our stomach lining."

Once in the stomach, the capsaicin continues to interact with receptors and can stimulate acid production - which can explain why some people feel digestive discomfort or a burning sensation after consuming it.

However, Geiga adds that capsaicin "has been shown to promote digestive health by increasing blood flow to the stomach and possibly reducing inflammation".

Rosser advises that, if you find yourself struggling after you’ve eaten something too spicy, you should drink milk or eat yoghurt to help soothe the burning sensation.

But if you’re keen to increase your spice tolerance, you can do so gradually. James Elander, professor of health psychology at the University of Derby, says: "People's initial reactions to spicy foods - discomfort, or irritation - is obviously very different from some real long lasting bodily pain, although a sudden dose of very strong spicy food can seem almost painful, in the moment, and an experience like that certainly could be a significant barrier for people trying to build up their spice tolerance.

"But pain is an extremely interesting phenomenon, psychologically: while pain is very real, it's our tolerance towards pain, or our willingness to accept it, which determines how we perceive and feel it.

"That might also be true of experiences of eating spicy food. If someone wants to increase their tolerance of spicy foods, the most obvious thing to try is starting with only mildly spicy food and gradually increasing the spiciness, or eating with other people who enjoy spicy food, and learning to love it.

"This can help people to appreciate the positive aspects and potential benefits of spicy foods."

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