Many people who love spicy food, refer to it casually as an addiction. But can you actually get addicted to hot foods?
First of all, let’s make sure we all have the same understanding of what addiction is. In a clinical sense, addiction isn’t just something you are motivated to do again and again because it creates pleasure.
This is how the American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction:
Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.
Now, with that definition in mind, we can discuss how spicy food affects the brain, the research behind spicy food, and whether or not an addiction to spicy food is possible.
So, is spicy food addictive?
Researchers have not found any causal evidence that spicy foods are addictive or have negative social consequences, even when consumed in high amounts. This means that it’s unlikely that you can become addicted to spicy foods, and that the consequences and negative repercussions of eating spicy food aren’t great enough to warrant the resources it takes to do research. That said, spicy foods do act similarly in some ways to drugs and alcohol, which are addictive substances.
Spicy foods release endorphins, which make you feel good
One reason that drugs and alcohol are so addictive is that they make the brain release endorphins, which makes you feel good.
Similarly, when you eat spicy foods it creates a pain reaction: your body interprets it as if you are overheating. This makes the body release endorphins, to act as a natural painkiller. The use of capsaicin as a painkiller has been documented for hundreds of years and is used in modern medicine as injections for nerve pain conditions like Morton’s Neuroma, and topically for other forms of neuropathic pain.
Spicy food can make other tastes taste better
Spice (as in heat from capsaicin) does not have a “taste”, it is simply a pain reaction. But capsaicin enhances the perceived intensity of other flavors like sweet and salty, which can make your dish taste better overall. This may have some connection with the endorphin reaction as mentioned above, creating a more pleasurable experience when you eat.
This can in turn motivate you to want to eat spicy foods more often, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as an addiction.
You won’t develop a physical dependency on spicy food
Unlike drugs and alcohol, you won’t develop a dependency on spicy food. If you normally use hot sauce on your eggs every morning, going a week without will not cause you to feel anxious or give you the sweats.
But you can develop your tolerance to spice
If you are an avid spicy food-eater, you may notice that it takes more and more to get the same level of burn. While there may be a genetic component in enjoying spicy foods, it’s also possible to increase your tolerance by progressively eating spicier and spicier foods.
Normally when you eat capsaicin-containing foods, the TRPV1 receptors open and allow sodium and calcium ions to enter — that’s what sends the signals of pain to the brain. When you eat spicy food, again and again, the receptors shut off, preventing the transmission of pain signals, which are what cause the “burning” feeling.
A sensation of “spice” isn’t always caused by capsaicin
Keep in mind that this article is discussing the mechanisms behind foods that are spicy because they contain capsaicin, like chili peppers. There are other compounds that can create similar spicy effects, like allyl isothiocyanate (wasabi), and cinnamaldehyde (cinnamon), which target different receptors.