Be a Man! Chilli and Testosterone

That relationship of spicy-hot food and masculinity/machismo is well known.

The Flash - Naga Jolokia
Sometimes even in TV series such as The Flash, to show masculinity and prove one’s interest in a girl…

You know the scene.

A restaurant opens and promises food so hot a human can’t eat it, or a chilli-enthused friend buys a new kind of hot sauce that comes with its own warning label, and ‘real men’ rise up to the challenge.

In many, if not most, social situations we no longer beat our breasts and make a racket with branches like some of our ape relations, but we certainly do engage in displays of aggression and power.

At least, men do. Sometimes even with chilli.

Science has taken note, and as scientists would, they wondered about the hormonal balances and their interactions with food that might be driving that relation.

Turns out that there seems to be a relationship, indeed: As the very headline of one of the most interesting recent scientific articles proclaims, “Some like it hot: Testosterone predicts laboratory eating behavior of spicy food.

The men in the study who had higher levels of testosterone “voluntarily and spontaneously consumed” more hot sauce with the test food they were given (which was mashed potatoes – one wonders if that didn’t also influence things, baby food as that may be seen as).

To researchers, the continuing fascination lies with the riddle of why humans consume chilli at all when it is a substance that causes pain. Social learning clearly plays a role (when everyone around you eats it, chances are you’ll eat it, too), but so do personal likes/dislikes and – or based on – individual differences in physiology (which can determine how sensitive you are to the chilli’s burn).

The thing with this study, however, is that it didn’t just look at typically masculine (more aggressive, risk-taking) behavior, but also at the hormone that is seen to underlie much of that behavior – and the hormone that Alexis Madrigal, writing in Fusion, described as the (man’s) “drug of the future“:

Testosterone is not just any drug. It’s not nitrous oxide out of a balloon at a Phish show or a little weed in a brownie. ‘T,’ (as it is known) is, by most accounts, as close to a direct anti-aging medication as science has yet produced. It can be manufactured cheaply in large quantities, and the risks seem manageable for most people. Users report increased energy, more muscle mass, decreased body fat, greater sex drive, and a general sense of well-being. In short, it’s one of the most transformative substances a human can take.

Given the study results, maybe one wouldn’t even need to take testosterone directly, maybe one could just eat more chilli. Whether the chilli eating is a result of higher testosterone levels or whether testosterone levels increase when a man eats more chilli (or perhaps, a cycle between the two) has not been found out yet.

Me, I’ll rather eat more chilli than take a drug, natural or not (and an excess of testosterone can have negative side-effects, and it’s certainly a lot more expensive than chilli!). Plus, my beloved wife can also participate in that… or maybe that’s why Hunan women have such fiery characters?

Questions over questions. And still more reasons to enjoy spicy food!

Some like it hot: Testosterone predicts laboratory eating behavior of spicy food
Laurent Bègue, Véronique Bricout, Jordane Boudesseul, Rébecca Shankland, Aaron A. Duke
Physiology & Behavior 139 (2015) 375–377

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