A colleague of mine, concerned about becoming 30 and suddenly having a low tolerance to everything, was wondering why he’s been feeling increasingly woozy while eating spicy food. He’s noted that he feels buzzed, not unlike what others describe as “getting high”.
So can you get or feel high from eating spicy food? Well, it depends a lot on what you mean by “high”, so let’s dig in.
The word “high” is certainly a nebulous one. It means a range of things, and it’s used in a fairly colloquial manner. The high you get from taking ecstasy – an alert, buzzy feeling where external stimuli seem more intense – is certainly very different from the high you get from cannabis; depending on the strain and the varying amounts of CBD and THC in it, this drug can make you feel more chilled out or more spaced out.
You can also get a “high” after experiencing an adrenaline rush, triggered by, say, a skydive. If you enjoy running, the production of endocannabinoids within your body can give you a “runner’s high” not dissimilar to the one you get from using cannabis products.
According to Merriam-Webster, these all generally refer to definition 12b: “intoxicated by or as if by a drug or alcohol”, i.e. “high on cocaine.” So now that’s clear, can spicy food get you high, or make you feel high, in this way?
It certainly seems that way, and the blame can be laid with capsaicinoids, a family of plant components that belong to the Capsicum genus. The most well known is capsaicin – real name (6E)-N-[(4-Hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)methyl]-8-methylnon-6-enamide, by the way. These are found in various parts of the fleshy innards of the fruit of the plant, especially in the white slithers to which the seeds, which don’t produce any themselves, are attached.
It’s already a little peculiar that we eat chili peppers rich with the stuff, because it’s thought that it evolved through natural selection as a way of deterring animals from eating it.
Sure, if we pooped the seeds out after eating the pepper, we’d help spread the plant all over the place, but the mechanical digestion of plenty of creatures – as in, chewing – largely destroys such seeds. (As this 2012 dispatch notes as an aside, though, birds do not destroy the seeds of such plants, which is why they are a key dispersal mechanism for them.)
Nevertheless, we enjoy eating them, which means we enjoy the burning sensation these capsaicinoids produce. This is related to the proverbial high, so let’s have a look at the chemistry of these little beauties.
Per Helix, Northwestern University’s scientific outreach blog, the sense of spiciness we get from them isn’t a “taste”, as there are no taste buds associated with them. Instead, on your tongue (and elsewhere on your body) you have a protein named TRPV1, which is attached to the surfaces of nerve cells. It’s like a periscope that lets the cells know what’s happening.
Now, TRPV1 reacts to high temperatures, letting your brain know to stop eating lava, say. It also reacts in the same way when it comes into contact with capsaicinoids, which bind to the proteins through a mechanism we're only just beginning to understand.
So, knowing that the same "oh crap, you're burning" sensation is activated when we chew on chili peppers, why the hell do we still insist on eating them?
Well, in order to numb the pain, our brain releases endorphins, a multipurpose group of neurotransmitters that are sometimes referred to as “pleasure” hormones. Dopamine, the “reward” neurotransmitter, is also released. That is why you may feel “high” after eating spicy food.
Plenty of drugs release endorphins, including alcohol. MDMA releases a decent amount of dopamine, as well as serotonin – another neurotransmitter linked to feelings of happiness – and norepinephrine, which among other things ups your heart rate.
So yes, spicy food can make you feel high, but in a way that’s different from using drugs or doing a handstand and unexpectedly pulling it off.