If you’ve ever diced a habanero bare-handed and then absentmindedly touched your eye, you know that handling spicy food can hurt. That stinging and burning pain can last beyond several flushes with water.
It goes away eventually, but you have to wonder — if touching a spicy pepper hurts that much, can eating it do you even more harm? Let’s review the evidence, shall we?
That’s one hot bod
In 2016, a 22-year-old chef from Britain traveled to Indonesia, where he dared to try a dish called “death noodles,” which is reportedly 4,000 times spicier than Tabasco sauce. Ben Sumadiwiria considered himself a pro when it came to spicy foods, but he met his match with this dish. As the Metro reports, the noodles were so spicy that Sumadiwiria actually went deaf for a full two minutes or more. They also made him turn red, get dizzy and throw up, but those pale in comparison to, you know, losing the ability to hear.
As Live Science explains, hearing loss is within the range of side effects of eating very spicy food:
The throat and the ears are connected by conduits known as the Eustachian tubes, which help equalize pressure in the inner ear. When the nose starts producing lots of snot — as it does when you scarf down something spicy — this can block the Eustachian tubes, said [Dr. Michael Goldrich, an otolaryngologist at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey.]
This would create the feeling of your hearing being blocked, much like when you have a really bad cold. In Sumadiwiria’s case, the effect was more extreme.
Feel the burn
At a “world’s hottest chilli contest” in Scotland in 2011, many of the first 10 participants ended up writhing on the floor in pain, fainting and vomiting after eating the Kismot Restaurant’s red-hot dish called the Kismot Killer. Two people ended up in the hospital. (The next round of participants wisely declined to take part in the contest, The Telegraph reports.)
And in Brighton, England, a local newspaper tells the story of how two of its reporters fared when they sampled a local eatery’s XXX Hot Chilli Burger, which the owner claims to be spicier than pepper spray. “It was hard to walk. I needed to drink milk to neutralize the burning, which was hard because I was hyperventilating so much my hands had seized up,” said reporter Ruari Barratt. The other unlucky participant said he was in so much pain, he felt like he was dying.
Hurts so good
Why does spicy food hurt your stomach, and really, your whole body? First, a little lesson on two terms: Scoville units and capsaicin.
Scoville units measure how hot a pepper is. (For perspective, a poblano is 1,000 to 2,000 units, a serrano is 6,000 to 23,000 units, a Scotch bonnet is 100,000 to 325,000 units, and the Carolina Reaper, the spiciest pepper in the world, is 1.5 million to 2.2 million units.) And capsaicin is a compound in peppers that makes them hot. The Scoville heat score measures the amount of capsaicin in the pepper.
Once in your body, capsaicin stimulates nerves that respond to increases in temperature. They’re the same pain receptors that respond to injuries, but in this case, high amounts of capsaicin make them react as if you’re being burned from the inside out. As Barry Green of John B. Pierce Laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut, explains for Scientific American:
Capsaicin sends two messages to the brain: ‘I am an intense stimulus,’ and ‘I am warmth.’ Together these stimuli define the sensation of a burn, rather than a pinch or cut… Most people think of the ‘burn’ of spicy food as a form of taste. In fact, the two sensory experiences are related but are very distinct. They innervate the tongue the same way, but the pain system that is triggered by capsaicin is everywhere on the body, so one can get thermal effects everywhere.
Green goes on to write, “We humans are peculiar creatures — we’ve taken a nerve response that normally signals danger and turned it into something pleasurable.” Pleasure is the key word, because after eating a very spicy pepper and before it makes you sick, there’s an endorphin rush that blocks the pain and makes you feel great… until they wear off and reality sets in.
So yes, eating extremely spicy food can indeed hurt you. But can it kill you? According to Paul Bosland, professor of horticulture at New Mexico State University and director of the Chile Pepper Institute, it could, but our bodies likely wouldn’t let that happen.
“Theoretically, one could eat enough really hot chilies to kill you,” he told Live Science. “A research study in 1980 calculated that three pounds of extreme chilies in powder form — of something like the Bhut Jolokia [known as ghost peppers] — eaten all at once could kill a 150-pound person. However, one’s body would react sooner and not allow it to happen.”
Basically, you may have a dozen hours of discomfort and pain ahead of you — and possibly heartburn so severe that it mimics the symptoms of a heart attack, as was the experience of this Bon Appetit writer — but these are relatively short-term punishments compared to death.
There’s more good news: Making your meals picante — at a more reasonable level — also has some health benefits, including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. It also can boost your metabolism.
For spicy food lovers, that’s probably music to their ears — and antacid to their stomachs.