Mailbox: Can hot chillies cause harm?

11 February 2020

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chillies on a table

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This week, Pavel got in touch with a question about chillies...

Adam - And now it's time for the mailbox where we look at the things that you've been sending into us. And we've gotten this question in from Pavel and they say that during another program it was mentioned that chillies can dock on the same receptors that feel heat. And this gives the eater the feeling that the food is hot, and that's why chilli burns. These receptors should actually protect us from burning our tongue and our mouth. So what physical effect is there from the ingestion of too much really hot chilli? Can it actually burn you or in some other way damage your mouth. And is this only a feeling that'll pass away without any injuries? So Katie, can chillies actually be dangerous? I love my spicy food. So a little concerned.

Katie - This is really interesting and selfishly it's very pertinent timing for me because I'm trying to bolster my capacity to handle spicy food, starting from um, baseline, shall we say. The thing that makes chillies hot is a molecule called capsaicin. This molecule activates pain neurons, so it's sending an "ouch, this is hot" signal to the brain. And this happens regardless of whether or not it's temperature heat or chemical "heat". So the body essentially doesn't care what type of heat it is, it's just going to go into self defense mode. So maybe sweating or inflammation or - even in severe cases, I've heard about - vomiting.

According to a BBC Futures article I was looking at, eating hot hot chillies is unlikely to do any lasting harm, but it can have some pretty unpleasant and pretty intense side effects. So I think I'll be sticking only to what I can handle. And I imagine you'll probably be doing the same right?

Adam - Probably. But I think I've a slightly lower sense of self preservation than you do.

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