Spicy Foods and Pain Medication?

You’re eating sushi with a friend. The friend splashes some wasabi on the sushi and you just cringe, knowing how spicy that would be if you did the same. While spicy foods may be an acquired taste, what if the chemicals responsible for the harsh sensations could tell us more about how to prevent health problems such as asthma?

An article in The Washington Post discusses special receptors that we are learning more and more about that may lead to advances in medicine and, if anything, explain why we are irritated by chemicals in spicy foods or in other products such as mouthwash.

The Science

Biological mechanisms underlying  allyl isothiocyanate (horseradish chemical), stimulate the same class of chemical receptors on the same sensory cells in your mouth, throat, nose, sinuses, face and eyes as do tear gas agents and pepper spray’s capsaicin, the chemical in chili peppers that makes you reach for that glass of water.

Pungent foods, tear gas and even mouthwash push on your comfort zone in the same way, by opening the gates on teeny tiny pores — called Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) channels. When these pores open up, the cells are more likely to send signals to the brain, which then orchestrates the sneezing, coughing, tearing and other chemical-purging behaviors.

The Purpose

Why would these irritants exist in nature? Well, just as mammals don’t want to get eaten and will fight off (or run away from) predators to survive, plants need to be able to fight (or run away from) the animals that want to eat them. Since plants can’t run, evolution was good enough to give plants the power to use chemicals to ward off animals—more specifically animals that don’t spread their seeds. It turns out that some vegetables are quite smart in this way: The irritant in chili peppers, capsaicin, fails to repel certain birds that are good at dispersing the chili’s seeds through their excrement.

Cool, huh?

The Medicine Potential

Knowing the source of the pain, TRPs, may help us create new forms of pain management.

“Everywhere you feel pain, that is where [TRP channels] are,” said Sven-Eric Jordt, a pharmacology professor at the Yale School of Medicine.

Jordt has been looking into a connection with smoking.

“We are finding that menthol can suppress pain and irritant responses to smoke” in the throat and elsewhere, Jordt said. “The menthol enables people to inhale more, so it might help people get hooked.” He notes that the Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act, signed into law two years ago, gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to ban flavored cigarettes but says menthol was exempted, at least for the time being, partly because the scientific understanding of how menthol interacts with TRP channels remains incomplete.

The value in this knowledge will come from links between receptors and health issues. If we can connect a certain TRP with asthma, then we can work on more effective asthma treatments.

“These receptors have a lot to do with our sense of ourselves inside, and they affect our feelings of pleasure and pain,” said Gina Story, a biomedical scientist at the Washington University Pain Center in St. Louis. She and her colleagues have been investigating differences between the sexes in the distribution of these receptors. Her findings, she said, could end up explaining why “men and women fight over the thermostat.”

Huh. All this time we just assumed it was some hormonal thing. Live and learn.

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