Edith Zimmerman in The Cut:
Recently I’ve been experimenting with mood-modification through temperature extremes (like hot and cold bathing). The heat of a sauna, for instance, supposedly triggers a rush of pleasurable hormones — and so, apparently, does the heat of a chili pepper. I like hot sauce, and this seemed like a good enough excuse to experiment.
For a beginner’s lesson on the mood-altering properties of capsaicin (which is sometimes used in pain relief), I got in touch with Matt Gross, a travel writer and hot pepper expert who’s currently at work on a hot pepper documentary called Hot Pursuit. We met up one recent evening at his Brooklyn apartment to taste increasingly hot peppers while he fielded my questions about what it is that people like about pain.
One rationale is that it’s a form of “controlled risk,” or a way of enjoying the thrill of pain and fear without actually feeling threatened (roller coasters and scary movies do the same thing). Eating spicy peppers also triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, which are two of the brain’s natural painkillers, and which can result in a kind of stressor-induced “high” (akin to “runner’s high”).