The Strange Science Behind Why Alcohol Burns


If you’ve ever taken a shot of alcohol, you know that it comes with certain unexpected consequences—the surprising heat you feel as the liquid slides down your gullet, for instance.

The folks over at SciShow recently tackled the “why” behind alcohol’s burn, and the answer is surprising. It all starts with a receptor known as VR1, contained in our mouths and throats. High temperature foods trigger VR1, which then tells our nerves and brain what’s going on, and results in a burning sensation.

Capsaicin, found in spicy foods, interacts directly with these receptors, as does alcohol ethanol, though in a different way. Ethanol just makes them more sensitive. Your VR1 receptors activate at about 107°F, but ethanol lowers that to just 93 degrees. See where this is going? Body temperature is normally around 98.6°F, so when you feel that burning sensation, it’s because your body itself is now beyond the threshold for those heat receptors.

As host Hank Green says in the video above: “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”—which just might be the best brainy pickup line of all time.

Images via iStock.