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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)分為多個等級,從等級最低的青椒(辣度為0)一直到令人望而色變的“卡羅萊納死神辣椒(Carolina Reaper)”(辣度220萬)。盡管人們每天正常飲食中攝入的辣椒對人體不會產生什么危害,但是嗜辣者的瘋狂行為則不在此列。2014年,英國布萊頓市(Brighton)《百眼巨人報》(The Argus)的兩位記者到當地獲得貓途鷹網站(TripAdvisor)高分平價的一家餐館吃漢堡。他們每人嚼了一口XXX級超辣漢堡–這種漢堡是餐館老板為了招徠人氣,用比防狼噴劑辣度還高的辣醬做成的。

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.

在攝像機鏡頭前嘗試世界最辣辣椒的勇敢嗜辣者們最后無不以失控嘔吐而告終。Youtube上的系列吃辣椒表演以及最終結果十分引人入勝,亞倫·斯耶(Aaron Thier)在為美食雜志《福桃》(Lucky Peach)寫的一篇文章中描述了一場1000人同吃魔鬼辣椒的丹麥活動的慢動作回放。“和往常的類似反應一樣,每個人都在大汗淋漓,不停打嗝。但是剪輯師卻營造了一種神話般的、永恒的、抒情性的效果。就連人們嘔吐時的表情都顯得那么興高采烈,”他在文章中寫道。

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.)

馬特·格羅斯(Matt Gross)也為美食雜志《好胃口》(Bon Appetit)寫了一篇關于辣椒的文章,文章是以冷冰冰的數字開始的。“我花了21.85秒才吃完三根世界上最辣的辣椒–卡羅萊納死神辣椒。之后的劇烈身體反應足足讓我花了將近14小時才恢復過來,”他寫道。(《破壞者:小小辣椒讓你體驗心臟病發病癥狀》)

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.

吃辣椒后的身體反應可以看作是人體自認為遭到燒傷后的應激措施,費城莫奈爾化學感覺中心(Monell Chemical Senses Center)的生物學家布魯斯·布萊恩特(Bruce Bryant)說。出汗是人體進行自我冷卻的過程。受到激發的痛覺神經元會釋放導致血管擴張的物質,從而引發炎癥反應,向受損部位輸送更多血液及急救物質。

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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