Ever wonder why you crave spicy foods?
It seems crazy at first because spicy foods involve pain. Why would you crave pain!?
However, there is one good and simple explanation behind all spicy food cravings.
You Are Actually Craving Endorphin Chemicals. Not Spicy Foods Per Se.
Spicy foods will “burn” your tongue but then your brain will release “pain-reducing” endorphins.
It’s these endorphins that you start to crave, not the spicy foods per se.
This can be confusing, and we’ll talk about addiction, pregnancy, and the ‘cooling down benefits’ of spicy foods later on in this piece.
But these issues are all secondary to the chemical ‘dependency’ towards endorphins.
And I put ‘dependency’ in quotations because spicy foods (and hot sauce for that matter) are not actually addictive.
However, the endorphin chemical release can cause certain craving tendencies similar to addictive behaviors.
So Exactly Why Does A Person Crave Spicy Food?
Here’s how it all goes down:
1 – First, the chemical ‘capsaicin’ is found in spicy peppers. For example, jalapeño and other chili peppers are high in capsaicin.
But interestingly, capsaicin is found only in peppers!
This means that spicy foods like ‘Spicy Chicken McNuggets’ are spicy because they have the ‘capsaicin’ chemical found in peppers!
Or your favorite hot sauce. It’s hot because of the capsaicin extracts used in the hot sauce!
After you eat the capsaicin …
2 – After you eat the spicy food, your tongue and other regions in your mouth like the top of your tongue will start to absorb the ‘capsaicin’.
If the capsaicin is still contained in the peppers in the food, you will need to chew the pepper to release the capsaicin.
Of course many foods don’t actually have peppers in them, but simply rely on capsaicin extracts which are more easily digestible and don’t need chewing at all – like your favorite hot sauce.
3 – The capsaicin gets absorbed by your mouth, tongue and throat.
This chemical triggers the pain receptors in your mouth. The pain receptors then send a signal up to your brain that your tongue is on fire!
4 – Your brain, thinking your tongue is on fire, sends endorphins to cool the pain down.
Endorphins are essentially ‘pain-reducing’ chemicals which get released and can seemingly cause cravings.
Endorphins also get released during exercise. In exercise, your muscles start to hurt so your body releases endorphins to reduce the pain in your muscles.
This is why after exercising you feel good and energized and have an improved mood. It’s because of those endorphins!
These endorphins are why spicy foods actually boost your mood after you consume them!
Ever notice how after a spicy bite you tingle for a while, but then you feel good?
- Your mood improves
- You get a bit more energy
The biggest thing I have noticed after eating non-spicy food is that I miss the ‘high’ of having spicy food in my mouth. Food sort of becomes boring after a great spicy sensation.
Here’s the big take away: endorphins are the primary reason you crave spicy food.
Now with all this talk about chemicals and highs, you might be wondering …
Can you be addicted to spicy food because of endorphin chemicals?
The answer is no. You cannot be addicted to spicy foods because of endorphins.
Here is why:
Endorphins are naturally occurring substances in your body. Other substance addictions, such as to alcohol and caffeine, introduce foreign chemicals into your body that your body comes to crave.
Plus, if you stop eating spicy food you won’t suffer withdrawals like you would with an alcohol addiction.
This is very good news because I like salsa but would hate to become dependent on it!
But to be fair, there is some truth to spicy food having qualities of addiction:
- You do crave spicy foods more after some time
- It’s possible to miss the spice
- You feel normal foods are boring
Plus, if you start eating spicy foods regularly then your tolerance to spice will build up.
I remember when I traveled in Thailand, at first I could only stand to eat one red pepper.
With a single red pepper my eyes would start to water up. I would start to sneeze and cough.
But the children I saw in Thailand would sometimes eat 3-4 red peppers!
And even by the end of the trip I was starting to feel more comfortable with at least one red pepper because of my growing spice tolerance.
It’s easy to see how you would need to keep eating hotter more spicy foods.
Your body can get accustomed to one spicy feeling and develop a tolerance.
And only another even spicier food would be able to cool those cravings down!
But here’s why I say spicy foods are not addictive, despite eliciting these craving qualities that alzo can be found in truly addictive behaviors.
The simple reason is this: aren’t all things that release endorphins somewhat pleasing?
When do we draw the line between an addictive behavior and something we do for good fun?
For example, here are some behaviors that could be considered addicting, but are in fact behaviors we do mainly for good fun.
- Other non-spicy foods
These activities all release endorphins, and yes, they can be addictive in the sense of you wanting to do them more often. But we don’t say that people get ‘addicted’ to movies per se.
People don’t get ‘addicted’ to exercise (even though plenty of people do over-exercise, but that’s more for emotional reasons rather than physical dependency).
The bottom line is that spicy foods don’t have withdrawal symptoms.
And let’s be honest too – the ‘serious cravings’ that you may feel towards spicy foods are nothing in comparison to the very serious life or death cravings people have towards addictive substances that actually do have withdrawal symptoms.
Now that we have addressed the primary reason behind why you crave foods, let’s talk about two other commonly asked questions regarding spicy food.
Is craving spicy food really a sign of pregnancy?
No. This is an old wives; tale.
In my blog post about meat cravings, I noted how different cultures have different food cravings in relation to pregnancy.
For example, in Western countries, pregnant women typically put chocolate as their #1 food craving.
However, in Egypt only 6% of pregnant women said they craved chocolate.
This type of evidence strongly suggests that pregnancy cravings may have definite cultural factors and have less to do with the specific foods.
With that being said, pregnant women do have an increased appetite. They are eating for two after all!
Now if you think about how, many spicy foods are high in calories as well?
- Chicken wings
One hypothesis is that spice cravings could be related to cravings for more calories. For example, have you ever had a bag of spicy cheetos?
I can remember one instance where my mouth was burning as I ate a bag of hot spicy cheetos.
However, I also remember needing to put another hot cheeto in my mouth to temporarily make the spicy feelings in my mouth decrease!
Then I would need to put another spicy cheeto in my mouth, and another, and another …
It’s not hard to see how eating spicy foods leads you to eat more spicy foods …
And by eating spicy foods you would naturally like and crave even spicier foods…
Leading to a cycle where your body could just simply keep wanting spicier foods until you found yourself in a hot pepper competition!!!
But I digress. Overall, eating spicy foods might help women meet their increased caloric needs, and this in turn is what might explain their cravings for spicy food!
This brings us to our last topic about what a spicy food craving means.
Spicy Foods Do ‘Cool’ You Down, But Don’t Explain Spicy Food Cravings
If you google ‘why do I crave spicy foods’ you’ll read about how spicy foods cool you down.
For example, the chemical capsaicin is known to cause a ‘thermogenesis effect’.
The thermogenesis effect is how cells take energy and make heat. Scientists in this paper here show how capsaicin does indeed produce the thermogenesis effect.
The scientists know that thermogenesis is a cooling mechanism in hibernating animals that keeps the animals the proper temperature.
They state that “eating (spicy foods) can make you sweat more and thereby help you to cool down”.
So, yes – eating spicy foods may help you sweat and cool down.
However, again, is this really why you crave spicy foods or hot sauce?
Most likely you are craving the endorphins from the spicy foods, not the cooling down effect.
While the cooling down effect can be related to spicy foods, in my opinion, food cravings aren’t usually thought of in terms of how they can cool you down.
When people are feeling hot in their body from a temperature perspective, they know to think of water, ice, or taking a shower! That may just be me here, and I may be wrong!
But could you ever find yourself thinking about spicy foods when hot?
I can’t imagine myself ever thinking about spicy food when hot.
Seems to me that my body and mind would be thinking about cooling down, not the next hot sauce to taste!
And for that reason, I don’t think that spicy foods cause food cravings because of the cooling down effect.
But you are welcome to disagree with me!
Let me know in the comments what you think about the cooling down effect:
Do you crave spicy foods because of the cooling down effect?
Or do you crave spicy foods for the endorphin-related reasons listed above?