Some people thrive on spicy foods — eating the ghost pepper salsa or ordering the ‘nuclear’ hot wings.
Are these people just tougher? stronger? superior? Or are they genetic oddities? Personally, I say that there is no shame in being a spicy food wimp!
Every perception we feel – heat, cold, salty, pain, acid, etc – is caused by a receptor sending a message. Your body has a number of different receptors that govern how you perceive the world.
Capsaicin and feeling the heat from spicy foods
Capsaicin is the component of chili peppers that makes them spicy and hot.
Capsaicin binds to a specific receptor called the TRPV1 receptor, which gives us the perception of heat and pain from spicy foods.
TRPV1 stands for transient receptor potential vanilloid 1. The main function of this receptor is not to make us cry when eating spicy foods — instead, it is involved in body temperature regulation.
TRPV1 is activated by[ref]:
- temperatures greater than 43 °C (109 °F)
- capsaicin (spicy peppers)
- isothiocyanate (wasabi and mustard compounds )
- peperine (black pepper)
- gingerol (ginger)
- acidic conditions (pH < 5.9)
- spider, centipede, and tarantula venom[ref]
- cannabidiol (CBD oil) at certain doses[ref]
- compounds in the body such as AEA, leukotriene B4
What does the TRPV1 receptor do?
The TRPV1 receptors are mainly found in the peripheral nervous system in the nociceptive (pain-sensing) neurons.[ref]
Capsaicin causes you to feel heat and pain by activating the pain receptors in the peripheral nervous system. But repeated exposure to capsaicin will decrease the TRPV1 receptor activity, causing you to be less sensitive to pain.
Repeated exposure to spicy foods decreases the receptor, making the food tasteless spicy. Another way that repeated exposure can be used is through using capsaicin cream for arthritis pain. Repeated exposure decreases the TRPV1 receptors, which decreases the perception of pain in arthritis.
Beyond pain and spicy food:
Beyond just signaling pain, the TRPV1 receptor plays other important roles within the body.
- TRPV1 is important in the cardiovascular system and in insulin release.[ref][ref]
- TRPV1 activation increases insulin sensitivity and is therefore involved in energy expenditure and diabetes.[ref][ref]
- Appetite regulation may be influenced by TRPV1, and it may be dysregulated in people with obesity.[ref]
- Endocannabinoids, CBD (cannabiodiol) oil, and terpenes in cannabinoids can bind to the TRPV1 receptor. This is how they modulate pain.[ref]
- The TRPV1 receptor may be involved in hot flashes in menopause.[ref]
TRPV1 Genetic Variants:
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Genetic variants that decrease the amount of TRPV1 should give a greater tolerance to spicy foods. These variants are also linked to less sensitivity to tasting salt and a decreased risk of diabetes.
Check your genetic data for rs8065080 (23andMe v5; AncestryDNA):
- T/T: typical receptor function; acupuncture more likely to work for hot flashes[ref]
- C/T: typical receptor function
- C/C: higher pain tolerance to cold, heat[ref] less TRPV1 receptor activation[ref] worse asthma symptoms[ref] less sensitive to tasting salt[ref] decreased risk of diabetes[ref]
Members: Your genotype for rs8065080 is —.
Check your genetic data for rs222741 (23andMe v4; AncestryDNA):
- A/A: typical
- A/G: increased risk of migraine (more sensitive to pain?)
- G/G: increased risk of migraines[ref] (more sensitive to pain?)
Members: Your genotype for rs222741 is —.
Check your genetic data for rs222747 (AncestryDNA only):
- G/G: less TRPV1 protein,
- C/G: more TRPV1 protein
- C/C: more TRPV1 protein, lower levels of inflammatory cytokines in multiple sclerosis[ref]
*given here in the plus orientation to match AncestryDNA orientation.
Members: Your genotype for rs222747 is —.
Check your genetic data for rs161364 (23andMe v4 only):
- T/T: decreased risk of diabetes[ref] less TRPV1(should be better able to tolerate spicy foods)
- C/T: somewhat decreased risk of diabetes
- C/C: typical
Members: Your genotype for rs161364 is —.
Check your genetic data for rs224534 (23andMe v4, v5; AncestryDNA):
- A/A: less sensitive to capsaicin (skin sensitivity test)[ref]
- A/G: typical sensitivity to capsaicin
- G/G: typical sensitivity to capsaicin
Members: Your genotype for rs224534 is —.
What can you do if you are a spicy food wimp?
- Casein, a protein in dairy, can help break the bond between capsaicin and the receptor. Yogurt decreases the hotness of chili peppers.[ref][source] And full-fat dairy may help more than low-fat dairy.[ref]
- Capsaicin is an alkaloid oil, so drinking water doesn’t do much for the burn.
- Protons can sensitize TRPV1 receptors to capsaicin. Acids are proton donors.[ref] Some online resources say that acids will temporarily give a cooling sensation, only to have the burning from capsaicin return with a vengeance.
- Heat can also activate the TRPV1 channel, causing pain at 109 F. But capsaicin lowers the threshold for that activation. So drinking or eating something hot along with spicy chilis will potentially cause more pain.[ref]
- Sweets may decrease the pain intensity of eating foods with capsaicin.[ref] Combining this with dairy and cold makes ice cream a good bet for decreasing the burn from hot chilis.[ref]
- The tip of the tongue should have the most TRPV1 channels, so perhaps shoving the hot spices further back in your mouth will help.[ref]
In mice, capsaicin reduces obesity from a high-fat diet. It also helps with insulin sensitivity.[ref][ref][ref] The human studies are not that impressive for weight loss, but there may be minor benefits for some people.[ref]
If you have ever started dripping with sweat after eating something spicy, there is a name for this — gustatory sweating – and it is caused by the thermoregulation of TRPV1.[ref] This thermoregulation is thought to be why eating spicy foods in a hot climate ends up cooling you off (theoretically).[ref]
Targeting TRPV1 for pain:
Capsaicin creams have shown to be effective for arthritis pain, shingles, and muscle pain. They work by repeated exposure to capsaicin causing a decrease in TRPV1.[ref]
Capsinoids are similar to capsaicin but without the hotness. Capsinoids are found in a type of chili pepper known as CH-19 Sweet. They give the metabolic benefits of capsaicin without the spice.[ref]
Cannabidiol (CBD oil) is a part of the cannabis plant that doesn’t get you high. It binds to the TRPV1 receptor as an agonist and is at least part of why it is effective for pain for some people.[ref]
There are clinical trials underway for drugs that target TRPV1. Interestingly, the side effects are that it messes with your temperature perception, making people feel either hot or cold.[ref]
Related Genes and Topics:
Digesting Carbohydrates: Amylase variants
Carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth with an enzyme called amylase. Saliva mixes with your food as you chew it, and the amylase in saliva begins breaking down carbohydrates into simple sugars. Amylase is also produced by the pancreas and used for further breaking down carbs in the small intestines.
Lactose Intolerance: The genetics of not producing lactase
Are you a milk drinker? Does pouring a cold glass of milk sounds good? Your genes control whether you are likely to produce lactase as an adult, and it is easy to check your 23andMe or other genetic data to see if you are likely to enjoy a big glass of milk.