Since the dawn of time, mankind has pondered the great mysteries of the human body. Foremost in the minds of many people is the question of why hot peppers make your bum burn.
The first humans to eat jalapeños and other hot peppers must have been surprised when their mouths lit with fire for the first time. But imagine what they felt about 24 hours later.
It’s strange for the anus to have a sense of taste. We don’t really want it to. And, indeed, the anus can’t taste sweet or sour or bitter or salt. But it certainly knows spicy hot when it sees it.
Why would the body have a hot spicy receptor in the anus? Why would millions of years of evolution and perfection of the human form create this?
As an anthropologist, I needed to perform some participant observation to better understand this enigma. So I went to a Mexican restaurant and had a spicy meal that set my mouth aflame and tears flowing as I gasped for breath. By the next morning, like clockwork, my meal had travelled relatively unnoticed through the small and large intestines and was now ready for removal. Pen in hand, I recorded the degree of spiciness. It was certainly an 8 on a scale of 10.
Let me backup for a moment. Several years earlier I had been traveling and stopped for a night in a hotel in Bangkok. In the bathroom was a hose for cleaning oneself after using the toilet. For a lifetime toilet paper user, I was taken by surprise when discovering this aqueous solution to butt cleaning. But, truth be told, I liked it.
And when you think about it, if you were walking barefoot in your backyard and stepped in dog shit, would you rather wipe it off with dry paper, or wash it off with water?
Ever since that time I have been using water for personal hygiene reasons. And when you discover that toilet paper can be contaminated with dioxin, chlorine, formaldehyde, and Bisphenol A (BPA), all of which are toxic, water makes even more sense.
Then there are the environmental considerations, with over 7 billion roles of toilet paper being used in the US annually. That takes a lot of trees. Globally, 27,000 trees are wiped out daily to make toilet paper. And, of course, making toilet paper uses more water than you would use if you washed with water in the first place.
Returning to my experiment, let me explain that my bathroom is equipped with a hose for washing, and the burning sensation was soon washed away. I then reflected on how less successful toilet paper would have been in removing the spicy chemicals from the area.
This was when I realized the purpose of the anus sensing hot spice. The chemicals in hot peppers can burn sensitive skin if left in contact for too long. This is why hot peppers can help with intestinal parasites. If you burn from the peppers, imagine how a worm feels. Having receptors in the anus for these potentially harmful chemicals gives you feedback, telling you that you need to clean the area.
How to clean oneself is really a cultural issue. It is not only related to the materials you use, but also to the method you use to poop. Do you sit on a toilet seat with your legs relatively close together (as when your pants are around your ankles)? Or do you squat over a hole, as with an Asian-style squat toilet, which separates your cheeks better? Then there is the issue of how hairy you are, but we won’t go there.
Actually, there are probably more people who use water to clean themselves after pooping than who use toilet paper. The French have the bidet, but most people use a bucket of water. On the other hand, some people use rocks and leaves. For many, instead of getting the coupons in the Sunday newspaper to buy toilet paper, they just use the newspaper.
As an aside, I must mention that while doing some fieldwork in Fiji, I discovered that the Fiji Times was commonly used for wrapping food, to clean one’s bum, and to absorb menstrual blood. That, and the comics. What a value.
The human being was designed biologically to need some form of anal cleansing. Clearly, the method one uses is culturally and environmentally determined. To ensure that the poop is removed effectively, especially if it contains irritating spicy chemicals, Mother Nature, in her wisdom, has endowed the anus with the ability to know what’s hot.