Much like I no longer have a wine tolerance since IRL happy hour became nonexistent during quarantine, my tolerance for spicy food is null and void. Even as someone who grew up around Portuguese and Brazilian food, I still ask a friend to taste buffalo wings before I dig in and avoid sriracha like the plague.
It used to be a lot worse -- I wouldn’t even go near cajun spice for a long time -- but now I enjoy the occasional Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich and will add some extra crushed red pepper to my shrimp scampi. Have I (or my tastebuds?) just matured, or is there a similar phenomenon to alcohol tolerance going on here?
Spice adds flavor, which is why the general population is a fan. Part of what contributes to a food’s flavor is its trigeminal sense, or the way your nerves respond to it. Spicy foods contain capsaicin, which triggers pain receptors, adding to the amount of nerves affected by eating a type of food. And when your mouth is “on fire,” your brain releases dopamine and endorphins, so even though it’s a surface-level “pain,” your body enjoys it.
Masochists, all of you.
But much like the way we no longer “feel” the pain of a wax after going for the upteenth time, or can continue to push through a fourth set of bicycle crunches at the end of a workout, certain types of pain become more familiar, and thus more tolerable, when we’re continuously exposed to them. The same goes for the pain of spicy food; the more you expose your pain receptors to capsaicin, the better able they are to change to make you able to handle the foods.
If you want to get into the gritty science of it, the capsaicin basically breaks down the ability for certain ions to get to your pain receptors over time, so the more often you eat spicy foods, the less you’ll feel their negative effects.
The advice is to start low and slow, leveling up your spice at an easy-does-it pace.
So, go ahead. Add a little extra wasabi to your sushi. You’ll get there.