Register for an account


Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.


Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.


How Do We Tolerate Spicy Food?

What happens when your mouth feels the heat.

By Leah ShafferOctober 29, 2015 12:00 AM
Teri Virbickis/Shutterstock


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Q: How can you get used to eating spicy food? Do your taste buds change, or is there a psychological element at play? — Alex Klunk, Chesterfield, VA

A: Spicy food tolerance comes from a physical change in how some of the body’s pain receptors react to capsaicin, the molecule responsible for the “hot” in spicy peppers and foods flavored with them. Psychology factors into how much we likethe burn, not how we feel the burn.

The spicy heat (as well as temperature heat) is registered through specific receptors on the tongue’s nerve cells. When exposed to capsaicin, these receptors open to allow in sodium and calcium ions, causing the receptors to transmit that hot signal to the brain. However, with repeated short-term exposure to capsaicin, those calcium ions essentially close the receptor door behind them, inhibiting further transmission of pain signals.

Over the long term, with repeated spicy meals, the whole nerve ending starts to degrade in a way scientists are still trying to understand. The nerves aren’t permanently damaged, though, and can grow back. That’s why it takes a regular diet of spicy food to keep the burn at bay.

3 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.


Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%


Already a subscriber? Register or Log In