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Why does alcohol cause that burning sensation on its way down?

Annotation:
Why Does Spicy Taste 'Hot' and Minty Taste 'Cool'? https://youtu.be/gwUN8XK3ZO8

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Sources:
http://jgp.rupress.org/content/125/6/531.full
http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v5/n6/full/nn852.html
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2775500/

Images:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EverclearHiRes.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ethanol-3D-balls.png
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Capsaicin-3D-vdW.png
[Intro Plays]

[text: QQs: Why does alcohol burn when you drink it?]

Hank: If you’ve ever tasted anything with alcohol in it, you know that it can burn on the way down. In the extreme -- like, if you down a shot of everclear or something -- it might even feel like your mouth and throat are being scalded. Maybe your eyes start watering, and your nose starts running... it was supposed to be a casual swig, and now all your fellow drinking-aged friends are laughing at you.

But there’s a good reason that alcohol burns so much, and it has nothing to do with its actual temperature. Instead, that shot of tequila feels hot because it’s messing with a type of heat receptor in your mouth and throat -- specifically, the receptor called VR1. When you taste something with a high temperature, it triggers this receptor, which sends a message to your nerves that they’re detecting something hot. That message then gets sent along to your brain, and you feel it as burning and probably pain.

Ethanol -- the kind of alcohol that’s relatively safe to drink -- binds to those same receptors. And so does capsaicin, which you might know as the stuff in spicy food that makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire. But capsaicin activates those receptors directly, telling them that wow, that chili is REALLY HOT, whereas ethanol just makes them more sensitive.

Normally, your VR1 receptors activate at 42 degrees Celsius -- in other words, anything warmer than 42 degrees feels hot. But ethanol lowers that threshold to just 34 degrees. And your body temperature? That’s around 37 degrees. So, suddenly, your body feels like it’s burning you. Alcohol is just weird, people. So the next time you take a shot and your eyes start watering, just remember: it’s not the booze that’s hot. It’s you.

Thanks to Patreon patron Jeff Posey for asking this question, and thanks to all our patrons, who keep these answers coming. If you’d like to submit a question to be answered, just go to patreon.com/scishow. And don’t forget to go to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe!