You don’t hear a lot about the famous Eskimo hot sauces, or spicy Scandinavian peppers. But you might expect to. After all, hot foods tend to make you warmer, right?
If you do a survey of the spiciest foods in the world, though, almost all of them originated in a band close to the equator in the hottest regions of the world. India, for instance, is the home of at least fifty incredibly hot peppers, and if you tell an Indian restauranteur to “make it like you eat it at home,” you’re likely to get food so hot you can’t eat it.
But spicy food makes you sweat, heats up your skin, makes your eyes water. In effect, it gives you more of the unpleasant reactions that the hot weather in its home country already gives you. Why would you want to eat spicy foods when you’re already overheated?
There are two basic reasons that all the best hot spices are found in hot places. First, the refrigeration aspect: because of the lack of refrigeration, even food that won’t necessarily make you sick sours quickly. Hot spices can mask this flavor. (This is also why you should be careful about eating foods from street vendors in hot third-world countries – it’s a quick trip to the doctor for unprepared American digestive systems!)
But the second reason is startling. Capsaicin, the chemical in spicy foods that make them hot, does things to the central nervous system that you might not expect. To begin with, it revs up the blood circulation, which brings more hot blood from the core of the body to the skin’s surface. It also dilates capillaries in the skin.
Between these two physiological effects, capsaicin makes you sweat. Sweating may be unpleasant, but it is one of the body’s best defenses against overheating. Your skin may flush and get hotter, but the heat that your blood brings to the surface is radiated out and away from the body.
The net effect is that the core temperature of your body is more easily stabilized. One of the most interesting things about humans is that cravings in a person who does not have an eating disorder are an indication of a need for something. Probably, when the first settlers in the hot regions of the world started eating peppers experimentally, their bodies figured out quickly that the spice cooled them down. This is a process that repeats itself over and over today, as new cuisines are developed in hot places – and just coincidentally incorporate all those hot spices.
However it happened, though, hot and spicy food in hot climates are actually very good for you. Eat that hot stuff, and know that you’re actually cooling your body no matter what your mouth tells you!