Why Does Wasabi Burn My Brain? (Is It Safe? Explained!)

One of my pet peeves about sushi is that I can never eat the wasabi and ginger without feeling like my brain is on fire. However, looking at it rationally:

Why does wasabi burn my brain? The wasabi root contains a chemical called allyl isothiocyanate. When the root is grated and chewed, this chemical is released and produces a burning sensation in the nose and sinuses. This receptor triggers neuropeptides to go to your brain and cause pain.

Read more about why that is and how to prevent it from happening!

Why Does Wasabi Burn My Brain

Why does wasabi make my brain and head burn?

Wasabi is a member of the horseradish family and has a close cousin in ginger. So why does wasabi make your brain burn? It contains a chemical called mustard oil (allyl isothiocyanate). This compound is also found in mustard seeds, and when you eat it, your mouth, nose, and sinuses get irritated, and you start to feel the burn.

Mustard oil isn’t the only chemical that causes this reaction. Capsaicin, which is naturally found in hot peppers, also makes your brain feel like it’s on fire. The same thing happens when you eat black pepper (which contains piperine) or cloves (which contain eugenol).

Why can you feel wasabi in your brain?

So how does this work? Well, it turns out that the main ingredient in wasabi is a compound called allyl isothiocyanate (AITC). This triggers your nose’s trigeminal nerve.

The trigeminal nerve exists to help you detect pain and other sensations in your face and mouth.

Once triggered, the trigeminal nerve sends neuropeptides through your body. Neuropeptides are chemical messengers that carry pain throughout your body.

But here’s the weird thing: your brain doesn’t always know where these neuropeptides come from! Instead, your brain just understands that there’s some sort of spicy stimulus somewhere inside of you.

So if there are too many neuropeptides in one area, like your nose or mouth, then your brain may feel like it needs to spread that pain out a bit more evenly across the rest of your head by giving you a headache.

Or maybe it makes you tear up because it assumes you got spice in one of your eyes! Or it gives you sinus pressure because it thinks something spicy is stuck up there!

Sometimes, our brains can be overly cautious when protecting us from bodily harm, even when we put ourselves at risk by eating spicy food on purpose!

Related: Why Does Wasabi Burn Nose and Sinuses?

What happens to your brain when you eat wasabi?

So what happens when you eat wasabi? In a word: endorphins. The hotness of wasabi is caused by a compound called allyl isothiocyanate, which is directly related to the pungency in mustard and other cruciferous vegetables such as horseradish and mustard greens.

This chemical irritant binds to nerve endings in your nose, eyes, and mouth, triggering the brain to enter into full defense mode to protect itself (as it does with pain).

The result? A rush of endorphins. And if you want another word for the endorphin rush, just look up “runner’s high,” which also comes from that pesky self-defense mechanism firing off in your brain.

burning brain from wasabi

Is wasabi good for your brain?

Wasabi can be good for your brain. A few animal studies suggest that the wasabi-derived compound 6-Methylsulfinylhexyl isothiocyanate (6-HITC) can help reduce inflammation and prevent neurodegeneration, but more research is needed to confirm these effects in humans.

That said, wasabi does contain some antioxidants and may help decrease inflammation throughout the body—and it’s been found to prevent certain types of cancer in mice. Plus it has antibacterial properties, making it a decent food preserver and an excellent excuse for your breath smelling like sushi.

Why does wasabi burn the back of my head?

If you’re one of those people whose head feels like it’s splitting after eating wasabi, this article is for you. We’ve explored the science behind wasabi to offer insight into why this root vegetable can cause a burning sensation in the nasal cavity and even spread to the brain.

First, a quick look at what wasabi actually is: Wasabia japonica, or Japanese horseradish is native to Japan and parts of China. It is closely related to Western horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), but it has a different taste and chemical makeup than its Western counterpart.

Western horseradish will make your eyes tear up when you eat it because of the high concentration of sinigrin—a glucosinolate (a sulfur-containing ester) that breaks down into allyl isothiocyanate (AITC)—that gives off a pungent odor when exposed to acids such as lemon juice or vinegar. The AITC causes your eyes to water and nose to run because it is so pungent.

How to stop wasabi burn?

Here are some of the tips you should follow when eating wasabi to stop burning:

  • Do not touch your nose, eyes, or any other part of your face after eating wasabi.
  • If you start to feel the burn, rinse your mouth with water. This can be enough to solve the problem.
  • If you want to prevent future wasabi burns, rinse your hands thoroughly with water after eating it and make sure not to rub them on your body. If you do happen to touch a sensitive area afterward and get wasabi in it, wash it off with water immediately!

You can also try sucking on a piece of sugar or eating a slice of ginger. These home remedies can help neutralize the wasabi chemicals that cause the burning sensation.

If the burning sensation is too much to handle, you can also take an over-the-counter antihistamine to help ease the discomfort.

Summary

The burning sensation in your brain that is often felt after eating wasabi is caused by a compound called allyl isothiocyanate, which triggers the brain to enter full defense mode. Hence the possible burning or slight pain.

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Image credits – Canva

Unlocking the Science of Wasabi

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