Owww! World’s hottest chili leads to days of severe headaches | Science News for Students

Owww! World’s hottest chili leads to days of severe headaches

The ultra-hot offender is known as the Carolina Reaper
May 17, 2018 — 6:45 am EST
Carolina Reaper pepper

Some Carolina Reapers (shown) have a spiciness rating of more than 2 million Scoville heat units. That would make them the hottest peppers in the world, according to Guinness World Records. The jalapeño, in contrast, tops out at only around 8,000 units.

LANCE CHEUNG/USDA

Hot peppers aren’t just a pain in the mouth — they can be a pain in the head, too. Immediately after eating the world’s hottest known type of pepper, one man developed headaches. These were really bad ones that lasted for days. When he finally went to the hospital, he learned his experience had been truly special.

His is the first known case of a chili pepper being able to narrow arteries in the brain. Researchers described the details April 9 in British Medical Journal Case Reports.

Narrowed brain arteries can lead to “thunderclap headaches.” These are super severe. They often result from problems linked with pregnancy or with the use of illegal drugs. Now downing chilis may need to be added to this list.

During a hot-pepper-eating contest, the man ate a chili known as the Carolina Reaper. Guinness World Records has dubbed it the world’s hottest. For perspective, it is more than 200 times as spicy as a jalapeño.

About one minute after chomping down on the pepper, the man developed a splitting headache. After enduring this pain, on and off, for two days, he finally went to the hospital.

Initial tests didn’t find anything strange. But when doctors scanned blood vessels in his brain, they found the man’s arteries had narrowed. Treatment included drinking a lot of water and taking pain medicine. Only then did the headaches stop. Five weeks later, the researchers looked at his brain once more. By this time, those brain arteries were back to normal size.

Capsaicin is the main spicy chemical in hot peppers. It likely caused the man’s headaches, Kulothungan Gunasekaran now concludes. An internal medicine expert, he works at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich. He also is an author of the new paper.

Capsaicin is used in defensive pepper sprays. Two previous studies connected capsaicin with heart troubles. One of those included a nonfatal heart attack. Ironically, small doses of capsaicin can relieve pain.

Gathering more data on how this chemical affects the brain could be tricky. Such a case is “a very rare occurrence,” Gunasekaran explains. “And no one’s willing to volunteer to eat this Carolina Reaper to see.”

Well, almost no one.

brain arteries
After eating a very spicy pepper, a diner’s brain arteries narrowed severely (arrows at left) and a pounding headache developed. Within five weeks, the arteries had returned to normal size (right).
S.K. Boddhula et al/BMJ Case Reports 2018

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

blood vessel     A tubular structure that carries blood through the tissues and organs.

capsaicin     The compound in spicy chili peppers that imparts a burning sensation on the tongue or skin.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chili pepper     A small vegetable pod often used in cooking to make food hot and spicy.

heart attack     Permanent damage to the heart muscle that occurs when one or more regions of it become starved of oxygen, usually due to a temporary blockage in blood flow.

journal     (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with experts (and sometimes even the public). Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.

pepper spray     A weapon used to stop an attacker without causing death or serious injury. The spray irritates a person’s eyes and throat and makes breathing difficult.

NGSS: 

  • MS-LS1-3
  • MS-LS1-8
  • HS-LS1-2
  • HS-LS1-3

Further Reading

Journal:​ S.K. Boddhula et al. An unusual cause of thunderclap headache after eating the hottest pepper in the world — “The Carolina Reaper.” British Medical Journal Case Reports. Published online April 9, 2018. doi: 10.1136/bcr-2017- 224085.