- Naga Jolokia pepper, the hottest pepper in the world.
Today I’d like to propose a healthier and sexier alternative to caffeine: Capsaicin.
Capsaicin is the magical stuff that makes chili peppers spicy. It’s the stuff that makes your eyes water up, your mouth, tongue, and throat “burn,” and which so many people love despite the fact that it causes them physical pain.
The idea behind this post is that caffeine and capsaicin induce a similar “jolt-awake” sensation by stimulating different nervous systems; caffeine jolts you awake by acting as a stimulant on the central nervous system. Capsaicin jolts you awake by stimulating the “fight or flight” response in the sympathetic nervous system by inducing sensations of burning and pain in your body tissues.
If you’ve ever wanted to wean yourself off of coffee, try manipulating your senses with capsaicin to make the process a little easier. Learn to love the burn.
Read Time: 5 mins
Skim Time: 3 mins
For the record – I love coffee. I have loved coffee for a long time. I worked in a coffee bar when I was in high school and developed enough of a caffeine tolerance that I could drink a quadruple espresso before a late night movie and fall asleep an hour or two after the movie was finished.
Nothing in this post is intended to bash coffee. Rather, it’s a spicy idea for anyone who’s trying to kick a coffee habit.
One of the reasons that so many people drink coffee is because of the kick it gives them. Ever hear someone say that they don’t really wake up until they’ve had their morning cup of coffee? Ever hear someone say that they get irritable after lunch unless they have an afternoon coffee fix?
In humans, caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant, temporarily warding off drowsiness and restoring alertness. It is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, but, unlike many other psychoactive substances, it is both legal and unregulated in nearly all parts of the world. Beverages containing caffeine, such as coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks, enjoy great popularity; in North America, 90% of adults consume caffeine daily.
Caffeine is a stimulant that acts to ward off drowsiness and restore alertness.
This means that coffee is good for a quick alertness fix. As most people who drink coffee can tell you, that quick fix comes with a quick crash. Coffee may rouse you to alertness for a brief period of time, but the boost is temporary. After a “coffee crash” you are usually left feeling more tired than you were in the first place.
Capsaicin is the stuff that makes chili peppers spicy, and the stuff that makes pepper spray burn. It causes a sensation of pain or burning in any human tissue with which it comes into contact. Interestingly, tarantula venom causes pain by activating the same receptors on nerves that capsaicin does.
I’ve loved eating spicy food since I was very young, and I never really knew why. I always thought I liked it because the sensation of eating spicy food was more intense than eating normal foods. Something I read back in 2009 has always stuck with me, and makes me think my love of spicy food relates to something else entirely: adrenaline.
When people call chilies “hot,” they’re not just speaking metaphorically. Capsaicin stimulates the neural sensors in the tongue and skin that also detect rising temperatures. As far as these neurons and the brain are concerned, your mouth is on fire. (Similarly, mint stimulates a type of neural receptor sensitive to cool temperatures.) With enough heat, adrenaline flows and the heart pumps faster. This reaction, according to some physiologists, is part of what makes peppers so enticing.
- What’s So Hot About Chili Peppers, Smithsonian Magazine (a really cool read)
Capsaicin in chili peppers tricks your body into thinking it is in danger. The sensations of burning and heat it activates in human tissues trigger a fight-or-flight response, accelerating your heart and lungs to prepare to respond to whatever is causing your body pain, and releasing adrenaline into your system.
Eat a chili pepper / capsaicin > Body tissues sense pain and burning > Body thinks you are in danger > Fight or flight response > Your body releases catecholamine hormones (adrenaline) into your system > You are roused to alertness.
Similar stimulating effect as caffeine, but through different neurological pathways. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, capsaicin stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (part of the peripheral nervous system). There is no crash associated with the capsaicin jolt like there is with the caffeine jolt.
Coffee alternatives that take advantage of capsaicin
So based on this idea you could either 1) eat a handful of raw chili peppers every day to wake up (can’t you see it now? the best part of waking up is capsaicin in your cup) or 2) experiment with different ways to infuse capsaicin into beverages or breakfast.
I’m not against eating raw chili peppers – I actually quite enjoy it sometimes – but there’s something inherently comforting to me about having a hot beverage in my hands when I wake up. The steam rising off the cup just works for me in the mornings. As it happens, I have a few good morning capsaicin beverages in mind to share with you for next time..
So, either eat a handful of raw chili peppers in tomorrow morning, or come back and check out my next post on morning capsaicin wake up drinks!
Disclaimer: I am not a scientist.
I’ve tried my best to do the research to make this post coherent.
I’ve checked the ideas and facts of this post with some friends who are nutrition and fitness junkies, and a Ph.D candidate in Biochemical Nutrition at UNC. They have informed me that there isn’t anything wrong with the basic ideas behind this post.
Having friends who are smarter than you are is a wonderful thing.
These folks did have a few points to amend. Namely that 1) those with an addiction to caffeine would not be able to substitute capsaicin for caffeine in their diets over night. Persons trying to go cold turkey on caffeine might induce unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and feelings of lethargy; and 2) if you eat too much capsaicin you might get an unpleasant surprise after your body is done processing it. Something my Ph.D candidate friend stated very succinctly:
“Capsaicin can also upset the stomach lining, and persists after digestion, which is why when people defecate after consuming spicy foods capsaicin will also set their asses on fire.”
- Scott. A very smart guy whose blog you can find here.
Even if I’ve misunderstood something in the science here, the drinks I’m going to show you in my next post are delicious and you might want to try them anyway just to see what they’re like. Additionally, I’m happy to be corrected and update this post down the line.
Question Of the Day
What’s the spiciest thing you’ve ever eaten?