Do you love hot and spicy foods? Given the choice at a restaurant, do you ask for more heat, not less, in your order? If so, it could be that you are also more prone to alcohol abuse. A study conducted through South Korea’s Busan National University found that key ingredients in spicy foods work the same way as alcohol in terms of activating the brain’s opioid/reward system.
Receptors in the brain connected to the reward (or opioid) system can be triggered by alcohol consumption. Those very same receptors can be activated by highly spiced foods, according to the new research. Alcohol and spicy foods stimulate the reward region of the brain, triggering the release of pleasure-sensing endorphins. Evidently, spicy food lovers possess an easily triggered reward system.
The fact that the reward system is easy to trigger may seem like a bad thing. It could mean that the person is more vulnerable than others to addictive behaviors. On the other hand, say the researchers, it also means that anti-addiction drugs like Naltrexone could be extremely beneficial to them. Naltrexone is a medication given to recovering alcoholics and other drug-dependent patients who are trying to break free from the cravings that are so often the pitfalls of recovery. The medication helps problem drinkers by interfering with the reward system.
Naltrexone is designed to stop people from experiencing pleasant sensations while they’re drinking. Human studies showed that spicy food lovers were helped to resist alcohol urges by using Naltrexone. The drug was more helpful to spice lovers than it appeared to be for those whose tastes veered away from spicy foods.
The Korean study also used rats that had been genetically bred to experience alcohol problems. Researchers injected these rats with the spice ingredient in chili peppers. After those injections, the rats showed a decreased interest in consuming alcohol. The rats evidently received sufficient endorphin pleasure from the spice ingredient and did not feel the urge to consume alcohol in order to trigger the same pleasant sensations.