A few years ago I woke up drenched in sweat in a small riverine village in the Brazilian Amazon. My guide handed me a plastic cup of steaming hot acai porridge. At about 8 in the morning, it was already over 90 degrees outside, but she urged me to drink it. “It will give you strength and cool you down,” she said. I was skeptical–but she might have been on to something.

Back in 2012, a guy named Ollie Jay was studying the way the body stores and distributes heat at the University of Ottawa. Jay and some colleagues put people on exercise bikes, got them good and sweaty, then measured their body temperatures after giving each participant a drink of water. Some folks got cool water, some people got warm water. Initially, the body temperatures of the people who drank the warm water went up, as you might expect, but after everyone had time to sit around and dry off, they found the warm water drinkers had actually stored less body heat than their cool water counterparts. How’d they do it? Through their sweat.

Sweat is your body’s natural response to heat. Collectively, all those little droplets are just energy, or heat, leaving your body. In a nice, dry climate, that excess energy evaporates off your skin and leaves you a little bit cooler. The evaporation is the most important part–in Jay’s study, the authors noted that they only saw body heat storage decrease when their test subjects were “under conditions permitting full sweat evaporation.” In other words, a room with plenty of ventilation and very little humidity. When you consume something hot, it warms up your esophagus and stomach, which then triggers your body to start sweating in order to release some of that heat. Under the right conditions, the more you sweat, the more heat you’re purging from your body.

So the next time someone hands you a steaming cup of something in the midst of an Indian summer, take it. As luck would have it, you really can fight fire with fire. Well, sorta.

6 Comments

  1. Theodore Wirth

    South Koreans eat both spicy and hot foods in order to cool them down in hot weather. What would you call this? A placebo effect? It is not beyond the realm of possibility.

  2. somelogicifpossible

    Wired title motto: “anything for a click, and content go to hell.”
    Although I am really surprised they forgot the global warming angle in this one.
    How about “Drink Sriracha to fight global warming”?

  3. And to return to the opening anecdote, more sweat doesn’t do you a darn bit of good in the Brazilian Amazon (or the American South). Just a few more drips to roll off your chin. I’ve been having this argument for decades.

  4. More to do with thermodynamics than spicy foods I imagine. It makes sense to me if you look at your skin & organs as heat exchangers & blood as a hydraulic refrigerant medium.

  5. aFriendlyAgenda

    I cant live without hot sauce!
    I put it on ice cream!

    I like that Chinese hot Chili sauce!
    That goes on anything!

    Mexican food, Chinese food, Hamburgers, french fries, ice cream…

  6. The headline for this article, as of this writing, is for spicy foods, but the article is about thermally hot foods.

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