Do Chillies Kill Your Taste Buds?
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Have you ever wondered why some people have such low spice-tolerance? A little hint of chilli, and their mouths are on fire, their ears are burning, their tongues are numb, and tears are streaming down their faces. There has also been the long-enduring belief that people who can tolerate chillies and enjoy them are unable to enjoy any other subtler flavours. So much so that legendary chef Julia Child believed (incorrectly) that chillies "literally" burned out people's taste buds, preventing them from enjoying other flavors. It turns out that this is not really true.

We should know that "spicy" is not one of the five basic tastes we can sense. Those five are sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami (savory). So, what exactly is spicy in our brain's opinion? Spicy is not so much a taste signal as it is a pain signal. Yup, pain.  

Let’s unpack that a little bit. We know that the tongue has about 10,000 taste buds. On these taste buds are microscopic receptors that allow us to taste things. The tongue also has pain receptors—called VR1 or TrpV1 receptors—that detect both temperature and pain. "Spicy" is a feeling that is registered by these receptors. Now, you may have heard of a chemical substance called capsaicin, which is the active ingredient in spicy peppers. When spicy food hits your tongue, this capsaicin is what hits the receptors. The Scoville Scale that you have no doubt heard of, thanks to the famous YouTube show Hot Ones, is in fact used to measure the capsaicin levels in every pepper, from humble bell peppers to scorching Ghost peppers. The more Scoville Heat Units a pepper has, the higher the heat intensity (and the longer you’ll be in pain).

Capsaicin is released from the membranes of the chilli peppers, and the receptors register it as things literally heating up. And the brain reacts as it would in the case of a real fire: it triggers your body's fight-or-flight response. Your heart races, you start to sweat, and endorphins rush to the scene to help you deal with these noxious stimuli. the numbness that you feel? Well. That’s the work of the endorphins, valiantly trying to block the pain.

But does eating loads and loads of capsaicin (well, chillies/spicy food) actually cause any damage at all? Here’s the good news: No, it does not. Even in the most severe cases of spice abuse, the numbness usually goes away within 24 hours. It’s the feeling of numbness that has caused people to think that spicy food kills taste buds. It is because taste and heat are two different sensations and, as such, are interpreted by two different types of receptors. Capsaicin only triggers the heat-sensing receptors; your taste buds remain unaffected. There is, of course, truth to the fact that as we age, we are in fact unable to taste as well as we used to. simply because as we age, so do our taste buds. Like most cells, during their younger years, taste buds are able to replace themselves as they age. But, over time, many of them run out of steam and do not regenerate. They become less dense and less sensitive. This general, physiological decline is usually misattributed to the eating of "all those chillies and spicy food" because, philosophically, eating such obviously noxious food registers to us as behaviour outside the norm, perhaps even sinful.  

How do we then develop a taste for spicy food if we are currently completely intolerant? As with anything, slowly. You can start off with a few chilli flakes on your pizza, or a sliver of a green chilli in your daal. Over time, the receptors we spoke of earlier build a degree of resistance to the toxin, so that your experience of the spice is not as pronounced as it was initially. And while you are at it, keep a glass of milk close by. As we are sure you have heard, "water makes it worse." It actually makes it worse. Capsaicin is water-insoluble, so what you are essentially doing is allowing the capsaicin to spread further on the tongue. Milk, on the other hand, has fat and casein, in which capsaicin can dissolve. Go for a sugary drink or wine because the sugars prevent capsaicin from attaching itself to the pain receptors. But always, always avoid going for the water if you are feeling the heat. 

Even though it has been demonstrated that excessive chillies can decrease libido, don’t worry. Your taste buds will be just fine.