Purpose of the Potent Pepper

Prologue

I shared some habanero peppers from our community garden with a friend last night.  He touched them, and then without thinking, went to the bathroom.  And, well, you know the rest! When I was in Mexico, there was a restaurant that had a legendary super hot habanero salsa. Their biggest warning was, “do not touch the sauce!” They insisted on not letting patrons serve their own sauce because of multiple incidents of extreme pain following restroom use. Food science recommends that people wear latex gloves when handling hot peppers. I make salsa every fall with fresh veggies and never remember that recommendation until an hour later when my fingers are burning and swollen.

Pain and Pleasure
What gives hot peppers their heat and what causes the pain?

Hot peppers contain a small molecule called capsaicin that is produced in high quantities in the placenta of the pepper where all the seeds reside. Capsaicin is also present in the fleshy part of the pepper, but it is much less concentrated than the white, pithy, internal membranes. It turns out capsaicin binds to a pain receptor called Transient Receptor Potential cation channel subfamily V member 1 or TRPV1 for short (also known as the Vanilloid Receptor). TRPV1 is present in nociceptors (nerves that send the “pain” signal) and is normally activated when the temperature contacting your skin is higher than 42°C or 107.6°F. This receptor causes pain in the case of high temperature exposure in an effort to let you know you are about to get burned!  The burning sensation caused by capsaicin does not actually burn your skin, but it feels similar.  The pain signal caused when ingesting capsaicin also triggers release of neurotransmitters called endorphins, which try to ease the pain, and can also cause a feeling of euphoria or relaxation.

TRPV1 also triggers release of a neuropeptide called Substance P, which sends pain signals, activates an inflammatory response in your body, and can cause redness and swelling. Activation of TRPV1 by capsaicin sends a signal to your brain and tricks it into thinking that you are hot. The inflammatory response caused by Substance P can also make your nose run. That’s why many people begin to sweat, tear up and get a runny nose when eating spicy foods.  That physiological response is also why chili peppers are included in many home remedies to treat allergies and cold and flu symptoms.

Paradox
If capsaicin causes pain, then what is it doing in arthritis creams?

There are two types of pain: good pain caused by capsaicin is temporary and you experience this type of pain as a warning sign in the presence of danger. Ingesting capsaicin tricks the brain into thinking you are getting burned, which is similar to the reflex that makes you pull your hand away from a hot stove. This pain stimulus is only temporary and disappears shortly after the danger is gone. Bad pain results when actual injury occurs or in chronic conditions such as arthritis. Bad pain is caused, in part, by build up of inflammatory response elements and pain signaling elements, such as Substance P.  Arthritis creams like Capzasin or Zostrix (not to be confused with BenGay or IcyHot) contain a small amount of capsaicin. Applying these creams to your skin at regular intervals may initially cause a burning sensation, but that should decrease overtime.  Regular application helps chronic pain because it basically causes nerves to dump all of their Substance P at once reducing the inflammatory response and chronic pain as a result. It usually takes a few days to a couple of weeks to see decrease in arthritis pain with these creams. Unfortunately, this is not a long term fix because your body becomes desensitized to the capsaicin over time.

Prescription
How do I stop this unbearable burning?

First, let me say that I am not a medical professional and you should consult your doctor before trying any of these remedies. When suffering from the fire burning on your tongue, hands or (god forbid) on your genitals after eating spicy foods, remember one thing: water will not help. Capsaicin is a very hydrophobic protein, which means it does not dissolve in water. Anecdotally, the most effective remedy is whole milk or any dairy product with high milk fat.  Proteins in the milk fat act as a detergent that grab the capsaicin and pull it away from your skin.  In the absence of whole milk, you could try cooking oil, dish soap or laundry detergent, although those are said to be only mildly better than water. If you splash pepper juice in your eye or accidentally rub your eye after eating hot peppers, the first thing to do is to not touch your eye again! Flushing your eye with cold water will give immediate relief, but some suggest  flushing the eye with whole milk will do the trick as well.  If you don’t have access to any of these things, don’t panic! Remember, the pain will subside and keep reminding yourself that you have not actually caused any damage to your body.

Prevention
How can I enjoy the fire on my tongue while protecting my more sensitive parts?

When cooking with hot peppers, consider wearing latex gloves. Don’t take the gloves off until you have cleaned the surface on which the peppers were prepared.  When chopping large amounts of peppers like habaneros, you might even want to wear safety glasses!  If you do not wear gloves, try to remember not to touch your eyes even after you’ve washed your hands, and use extreme caution when using the bathroom!

Period.

Ask Me How It Works: Do capsaicin creams really work? Retrieved August 21, 2012, from http://drholly.typepad.com/question_and_answer_forum/2005/06/do_capsaicin_cr.html

Capsaicin. (2012, August 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:23, August 21, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Capsaicin&oldid=507045041

General chemistry Online: Fire and Spice, retrieved August 21, 2012, from http://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/101/features/capsaicin.shtml

 TRPV1. (2012, August 18). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:24, August 21, 2012, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=TRPV1&oldid=507987390

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Karen Reece

Senior Research Scientist at Promega Corporation
Karen is a Senior Research Scientist in Nucleic Acid Technologies at Promega. She has a BS in Biochemistry and MS and PhD in Physiology, all from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Karen was born and raised in Madison, WI and every time she would think of moving away something would come up, so she just decided to stay. When she’s not doing research and/or development, Karen enjoys the local music scene (particularly Hip-Hop), playing the cello and singing, and fighting for social justice.

2 thoughts on “Purpose of the Potent Pepper

  1. Good advice for the most part. Gloves are key for me to be able to enjoy my hot peppers, and the capsaicin even seems to get through them sometimes! One quick note, capsaicin is not a protein as stated; it is a small molecule.

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