The World's Hottest Pepper: Brings Pleasure and Pain Relief

Capsaicin, the compound that puts the hot in hot peppers, has some medical uses.

February 17, 2012, 3:58 PM

Feb. 20. 2012—, 2012 -- Ted Barrus, an ordinary guy from Pullman, Wash., calls himself an idiot -- more specifically, a "fire-breathing idiot."

Barrus, 37, doesn't actually breathe fire, but his main hobby is sampling extremely hot peppers that make his mouth seem as if it's on fire. His latest sampling is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the pepper recently named world's hottest by researchers at the New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute.

"I do this to bring chilies and the fun they can be to the masses," Barrus said, who regularly posts videos of his reactions on YouTube.

Barrus passes on jalapenos, and even habaneros, and opts only for the peppers known as "superhots" and "nuclears," such as the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. This "superhot" hit an average of more than 1.2 million Scoville heat units, making it many thousand times hotter than the jalapeno, which hits about 5,000 units.

Scoville units measure the amount of spicy heat in chili peppers based on the amount of capsaicin, a compound that makes the peppers, well, hot.

So far, Barrus has dared to eat six of these mouth-on-fire peppers, including four in one sitting, which he says is "the most difficult challenge I have ever done."

As in several of his earlier pepper-sampling videos, seconds after he bites into the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, Barrus' face turns red, his eyes water and he starts to grimace and groan.

Despite the incredibly intense burning -- which persists for about 20 minutes -- Barrus says the 40-minute period of bliss that follows is worth the pain.

"There's a massive endorphin rush, and I feel really good after all the pain and craziness," he said. "My body starts tingling all over, my hands and arms start to go numb, and I sometimes get lightheaded and euphoric. It feels good." Released in response to stress and pain, endorphins are brain chemicals that reduce the perception of pain.

And it's exactly that endorphin rush that makes capsaicin an effective remedy for pain and other medical conditions, researchers say.

"The endorphins work to block the heat. The body produces them in response to the heat, which it senses as pain," said Paul Bosland, co-founder and director of New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute.

"It's used for all kinds of arthritis pain, as well as for neuropathic pain and dermatologic conditions that have a painful itch," said Dr. Ashwin Mehta, director of integrative medicine at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.

Capsaicin is also used by people with the skin disease psoriasis to decrease itching and inflammation, according to the university.

Some research has also suggested that capsaicin can also help with appetite suppression, but there are not yet any solid data to determine what role, if any, the chemical plays in weight loss.

Studies have also suggested that capsaicin may play help kill off prostate cancer cells.

"In test tubes, researchers found a correlation betwen increased cell death and capsaicin," said Mehta.

There have also been studies that found that people who eat a lot of chili peppers have a lower incidence of prostate cancer, Bosland said.

"This doesn't mean hot peppers cure prostate cancer, but it may play a role in preventing it," he said. "It has nothing to do with the heat per se, but they have a lot of carotenoids and flavonoids, which scavenge free radicals in our system, and free radicals are known to cause cancer."

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, capsaicin, provided it's in an extremely diluted form, can also be used to treat ear infections. Additionally, one study found that the compound may help treat heartburn. More research is needed to examine that relationship further, and studies are also under way to determine its effects on certain cardiovascular conditions.

But because it's so hot -- pure capsaicin extract is rated at more than 15 million Scoville units -- the compound should be used only as directed by a physician, and in moderation.

And Barrus also encourages people not accustomed to eating hot peppers to take the heat warnings seriously.

"These peppers are not for the average Joe. They're for idiots like me," he said, joking.

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