What it really means when you crave spicy food

Have you ever had one of those days where you felt you just had to have a plate of jalapeño-loaded nachos or an extra-spicy Bloody Mary? Like cravings for other types of food, science can explain this one, too — but the need to set your senses on fire has nothing to do with a missing nutrient in your diet, and everything to do with the fact that you might be looking for a specific sensation. 

Spicy food does what it does thanks to an active ingredient in chili peppers called capsaicin. This chemical compound goes straight for the pain receptors in our mouths, so that those nerves send signals to our brains and trick it into thinking our mouths are on fire (via Business Insider). And because your body thinks it's reacting to blazing hot temperatures, it begins to perspire in an effort to cool off. 

When that happens, your blood pressure spikes, your heart rate kicks up a few notches, and you start to breathe rapidly, notes registered dietician Tammy Lakatos Shames (via Women's Health). And surprisingly, your body's response to the pain of eating spicy food can translate to an immediate mood boost.

You may crave spicy food for the instant rush

Spicy food does more than just turn on your body's cooling mechanisms. People who enjoy turbo-charged spicy food swear by the mood boost they get when they eat it. Case in point: Ted Barrus, from Pullman, Wash., makes a hobby of tasting chili peppers and says suffering through the pain of eating them for 20 minutes is followed by 40 minutes of bliss. "There's a massive endorphin rush, and I feel really good after all the pain and craziness," Barrus tells ABC News

Before you think Barrus is a little nuts, there's research to back him up. The pain triggered by capsaicin spurs your brain to produce feel-good neurotransmitters, including endorphins (which are the body's natural pain blockers) and dopamine (which gives you a sense of reward and pleasure), according Northwestern University's science blog Helix. That's why people who consume lots of spicy dishes report feeling a "runner's high." So, the next time you're craving something vindaloo, you may just need a little pick-me-up.