Is it Really Possible to Cool Down With Spicy Foods?

People will do just about anything to fight high temperatures on the hottest summer days. We jump in swimming pools, run through sprinklers and crank up the AC. We eat organic watermelon, shaved ice and other foods that cool. In the city, kids will even ask the fire department to open up the hydrant on the corner. Yes, when temperatures climb into the triple digits, we’ll try just about any home remedy to beat the heat. One of them, however, usually doesn’t come to mind.

To beat the heat on a sweltering August day, have you ever considered takeout Buffalo wings? Tortilla chips and ghost pepper salsa? How about a single, fresh habanero from the plant on your neighbor’s porch?

Sure, a food tip that asks you to set your mouth on fire during the hottest day of the year sounds like pure craziness. Science, however, says it’s the good kind of crazy.

Spicy Foods Come From Warmer Climates

Before you totally reject the notion that we should all try to eat organic chili peppers to beat the heat, just think about the places that you associate with spicy foods. There’s curry in Thailand, doro wat in Ethiopia, Jamaican jerk seasoning and Indian vindaloo. These are tropical countries, every one. Or think about the southern U.S. Texans came up with five-alarm chili, shrimp creole was invented in the swamp, and New Mexico is awash in chili peppers. If your ancestors lived in Minnesota or Michigan, on the other hand, the primary option for regulating the body’s thermostat, whatever the season, was fish.

So why is it that the really hot stuff comes from warm climates? There are several theories, but one of the more interesting ones involves birds. The tropics are swarming with birds, and birds are great for seed dispersal. Mammals, on the other hand, often grind a seed to oblivion when snacking on plants. Crucially, spicy foods that cool vindaloobirds don’t have the molecular receptors necessary to feel the sensation of heat caused by hot peppers. Mammals do, so they tend to avoid these plants. Chiles are smart.

But humans are adaptable, and – uniquely among animals – they have a masochistic streak. Our ancestors learned to like the burn, to seek it out. And when they ate hot peppers, they received another benefit too.

Foods That Cool Can Trick the Body

How can jalapeno and habanero peppers be classified as “foods that cool” when they make us feel so hot? Thank the active ingredient in hot peppers, capsaicin, for the effectiveness of this food tip. Capsaicin doesn’t cause damage to your mouth, but it closely mimics chemicals in our body that signal pain. Our system reacts to this artificial pain signal with inflammation and increased blood flow to the head and tongue. Your body temperature does rise momentarily – and you’ll sweat, too. This is called “gustatory facial sweating,” and that’s how chili peppers cool us down.

After consuming a pepper, some hot sauce or any spicy food, the capillaries in your skin are flush with blood, and your skin is moist. The excess perspiration cools the skin if there’s even just a slight breeze, and this cools the blood as well. As the cooler blood cycles back down into your torso, it can slightly lower your core temperature. But the evaporative process itself provides a cooling sensation. We all feel a little chill when we get out of a swimming pool, even when the water is as warm as the air.

Spicy Foods Are an Eco Friendly Food Tip For Beating the Heat

Yep, as counterintuitive as it sounds, you can find relief during a heat wave by eating spicy foods that cool. So pick up some local peppers for a chilled pico de gallo. Crack open a bag of tortilla chips and reach for the salsa, then follow it all up with your favorite smoothie recipe – you know, just in case the spice gets a little too intense. You might even be able to cool down enough to turn off the AC, and that’s the perfect recipe for beating the heat without ruining the environment.