The Real Reason You're Craving Spicy Food

When a product-ratings company called Influenster went about researching the most popular condiments in each U.S. state, the results were telling, according to Thrillist. While some U.S. states apparently worship ranch dressing (we're looking at you, Idaho), a slew of states opted for hot sauce as their favorite condiment. In California and Nebraska, the most popular condiment was Sriracha. In Texas and Arizona, it was Frank's Red Hot. In Florida and Mississippi, it was French's crispy jalapeños. It's easy to deduce one thing from the study: America has a love affair with spicy food.

But why do we drown our pad thai in Sriracha? Why do we dump Tabasco over our eggs? Is it because deep down, there's some twisted part of us that loves the pain?

It's actually a lot less depressing than that. People love, and crave, spicy food not because it makes them feel bad, but actually because it makes them feel pretty good, thanks to endorphins. Remember those? The same hormones that make roller coasters and exercising fun? Capsaicin, a chemical compound in spicy peppers, literally releases endorphins in your body when you eat spicy food, according to Northwestern University's Helix Magazine. So your craving for a Nashville-style chicken sandwich isn't odd at all.

The art of capsaicin

From jalapenos to ghost peppers, chiles contain capsaicin in varying levels. (More capsaicin means the pepper will taste hotter.) According to Leidamarie Tirado-Lee of Northwestern University, capsaicinoids literally give your brain the impression that you're in pain. So once your brain receives that signal, it will release endorphins and even dopamine to combat the "pain" of spicy foods.

And releasing endorphins is important for your general mood and sense of pleasure: It can clear your mind of stress and help reduce the effects of depression. This is why exercising is so good for your mood and self-esteem (via Healthline). Spicy food, to an extent, allows that endorphin magic to complement your meal. While the endorphins released by a tuna roll topped with wasabi probably aren't as dramatic as the ones your body would release during a triathlon, the chemical reaction is still noticeable, and a valid reason for your spicy food craving.

The effects of spicy food, by the way, are particularly helpful in warm or hot weather — that's because Fresno chiles and Scotch bonnets can help you cool down. Hot peppers can cause you to sweat, which is your body's way of combating the burning sensation, according to WebMD. So dumping a spicy salsa onto your tacos or topping your dumplings with chile oil isn't a bad idea at all: It releases endorphins, cools you down — and let's be real, it tastes amazing.