It all starts so innocently: You order the jalapeño burger, dribble on a little Tabasco, maybe add a dollop of that habanero salsa, and boom. Suddenly, you’re clutching the table, eyes watering as you signal for the waiter to bring you some cold milk. In all this self-induced pain, one has to wonder: Is this spice addiction taking a toll on your ability to taste?
To answer the question, let’s first take a look at capsaicin, the heat-inducing chemical in spicy peppers. In the real estate of pain-inducing-toxic-yet-edible-chemicals, capsaicin has a monopoly: It is the sole proprietor of all heat found in peppers or pepper-infused products, ranging from curry blends to hot sauces to those little packets of taco seasoning at Taco Bell.
After one bite of a hot pepper or a spicy dish, capsaicin is released from the membranes of the peppers, clips to the neurotransmitters that regulate temperature in your mouth, and screams out to those neurons that things are heating up. The brain registers the signal and reacts just as it would in the case of a real fire: by triggering your body’s fight-or-flight response. Your heart speeds up, you start to sweat, and endorphins rush to the scene. Those endorphins put up a barrier to protect the tongue from the “fire,” which causes the mouth to go temporarily numb.
But the endorphins’ numbing powers only last for so long before the heat and consequential pain creep back in, leaving you in tears and your taste buds temporarily busted. Thankfully, it all wears off in good time, but just how much time depends on the pepper’s capsaicin levels
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