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Can you hurt yourself eating chilli peppers?

The delicious burn of a really good curry or salsa or Sichuanese hot pot – that fiery goodness that makes you sweat and flush – is for many people one of life’s great pleasures. The search for the most profound scorch is a hobby of sorts, perhaps even an obsession.


And hot-hunters are safe in the knowledge that although capsaicin, the spicy molecule in hot peppers, is activating receptors in pain neurons in their mouths, it’s not really causing any damage. Give it a few minutes, and the feeling that you’ve torched yourself will fade, only returning when the meal – ah – leaves the premises, a day or so later. It’s all fun and games. Right?


Well, until someone gets hurt.


Chillies are rated on a spiciness scale known as Scoville – a grading of heat that goes from the lowly bell pepper (0) right up to the fearsomely named Carolina Reaper (2.2 million). And while everyday amounts of spicy food are unlikely to do any harm, thrill-seekers have had some disconcerting experiences. In 2014, two journalists from The Argus, a newspaper in the British city of Brighton, went to test out burgers at a local restaurant rated highly on TripAdvisor. They each took a bite of the XXX Hot Chilli Burger, a specialty of the house made with hot sauce touted by the owner to score higher on the Scoville scale than pepper spray.

辣椒以其辣度(Scoville)分为多个等级,从等级最低的青椒(辣度为0)一直到令人望而色变的“卡罗莱纳死神辣椒(Carolina Reaper)”(辣度220万)。尽管人们每天正常饮食中摄入的辣椒对人体不会产生什么危害,但是嗜辣者的疯狂行为则不在此列。2014年,英国布莱顿市(Brighton)《百眼巨人报》(The Argus)的两位记者到当地获得猫途鹰网站(TripAdvisor)高分平价的一家餐馆吃汉堡。他们每人嚼了一口XXX级超辣汉堡–这种汉堡是餐馆老板为了招徕人气,用比防狼喷剂辣度还高的辣酱做成的。

The pain was unendurable – one reporter immediately swallowed a great deal of milk to try to stave it off, the newspaper reported. The other began to have severe stomach pains, lost the feeling in his hands, and began to shake and hyperventilate. His colleague was also seized with pain despite his efforts, and both had to go to the hospital. “I was in so much pain,” one said, “I felt like I was dying.”


Daring pepper eaters who consume some of the world’s hottest specimens on camera have found themselves vomiting for an audience. A miniature YouTube film festival of hot pepper eating and its regurgitatory consequences is a rivetting spectacle, writes Aaron Thier for Lucky Peach, who describes a slowed-down recording of a Danish event where a thousand people ate ghost peppers. “Everyone sweats and hiccups, as usual, but the editing gives it a mythic, eternal, lyrical quality. The vomiting seems exultant,” he writes.

在摄像机镜头前尝试世界最辣辣椒的勇敢嗜辣者们最后无不以失控呕吐而告终。Youtube上的系列吃辣椒表演以及最终结果十分引人入胜,亚伦·斯耶(Aaron Thier)在为美食杂志《福桃》(Lucky Peach)写的一篇文章中描述了一场1000人同吃魔鬼辣椒的丹麦活动的慢动作回放。“和往常的类似反应一样,每个人都在大汗淋漓,不停打嗝。但是剪辑师却营造了一种神话般的、永恒的、抒情性的效果。就连人们呕吐时的表情都显得那么兴高采烈,”他在文章中写道。

Matt Gross’s account of hot debauchery for Bon Appetit, on the other hand, starts with the cold, hard numbers. “It took me 21.85 seconds to consume three Carolina Reapers, the world’s hottest chillies. And it took me approximately 14 hours to recover from the aftermath,” he says. (Spoiler: The aftermath involved the symptoms of a heart attack.)

马特·格罗斯(Matt Gross)也为美食杂志《好胃口》(Bon Appetit)写了一篇关于辣椒的文章,文章是以冷冰冰的数字开始的。“我花了21.85秒才吃完三根世界上最辣的辣椒–卡罗莱纳死神辣椒。之后的剧烈身体反应足足让我花了将近14小时才恢复过来,”他写道。(《破坏者:小小辣椒让你体验心脏病发病症状》)

So what is going on here? If all hot peppers are doing is fooling your body into thinking there’s a small fire in your mouth, why can they provoke such a serious reaction?


Let’s come back to the basic biology of capsaicin. This molecule may have evolved as an anti-fungal agent for the plants that bore it. But, to humans’ joy and fascination and fear, it happens to activate certain neurons responsible for the perception of pain. Those particular neurons send a message of heat to the brain, whether the cells are activated by an actual burn or by a hot pepper. It’s not their business to distinguish between these noxious options – as far as the body is concerned, it’s better safe than sorry.


The physical effects of eating peppers can be seen as reactions to what might be — from the body’s perspective — real burns, says Bruce Bryant, a biologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Sweating is an adaptation for cooling off. Triggered pain neurons release substances that cause blood vessels to widen, resulting in inflammation, the better to supply the damaged area with blood and the body’s first responders.

吃辣椒后的身体反应可以看作是人体自认为遭到烧伤后的应激措施,费城莫奈尔化学感觉中心(Monell Chemical Senses Center)的生物学家布鲁斯·布莱恩特(Bruce Bryant)说。出汗是人体进行自我冷却的过程。受到激发的痛觉神经元会释放导致血管扩张的物质,从而引发炎症反应,向受损部位输送更多血液及急救物质。

When that Carolina Reaper hits your stomach lining and you retch, “that response is because there are pain-sensing nerve endings in the stomach”, says Bryant. “The body says, ‘I don't care if it’s a thermal burn or a chemical, but I’m going to get rid of it.’”


The responses that your body might have if you’d swallowed a caustic substance come into play with high levels of capsaicin because that is, after all, what the molecule mimics. Those burn-sensing neurons, in your mouth, stomach, and elsewhere, are going to do their thing whether what you’ve swallowed will really kill you or just give you some discomfort on the toilet.


But, hours or a day or so of very serious discomfort aside, there don’t seem to be long-term dangers, per se, in eating very hot peppers. Biologists have observed, however, that administering capsaicin over long periods of time in young mammals does result in the death of the pain neurons, Bryant says. Setting the neurons off repeatedly wears them out, and they don’t grow back.


Interestingly, there is even a theory that pepper plants might have developed the molecule as a way to deter mammals from chewing up their seeds. Birds, which eat pepper seeds whole and helpfully spread them in their faeces, do not have the necessary receptors to feel the burn. But in humans, pepper plants have encountered a special kind of mammal that courts the feeling, to the edge of reason and probably a little bit beyond.


Luckily for the pepper, this does not seem to have damaged its fortunes.

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