Why does mint make your mouth cold?


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            Have you ever chewed mint gum while drinking a glass of water, when suddenly your mouth feels like it is experiencing sub-degree temperatures, and you have a brain-freeze? I've always been curious as to why this occurs, and what it is that causes this reaction. Does something in the water chemically react with an ingredient in the gum? Is it the mint flavor? Or something else?

            According to Mentalfloss.com mint candy or gum creates a thermal illusion. A protein in the mint, called Transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily M member 8 (TRPM8), regulates the movement of ions across cell membranes. According to the article, "TRPM8 opens in the presence of cold temperatures and allows Na+ and Ca2+ ions to enter the cell. This changes the electrical charge within the neuron and the information being sent from the neuron to the central nervous system, eventually leading to the perception of cold."

 

            TRPM8 also activates the presence of menthol, an organic compound found in mint oils. For unknown reasons, menthol causes ion channels to open up in the same way that it would if the temperature of your mouth actually dropped; so although the temperature in your mouth doesn't actually change when chewing gum, it creates the same effect. What's even more interesting is that even after you spit our your gum, your sensory neurons will still be effected by the menthol for a short time after. Therefore, when drinking a liquid, or breathing in a cool burst of air, your mouth will remain sensitive to cold.

            Besides mint, what other food or ingredients create a similar effect on your sensory neurons? What would happen if you took a spicy food like hot peppers, and combined them with a TRPM8? Would it cancel out the coldness? Or increase it? What if you drank a hot water instead of cold?

3 Comments

This is an extremely interesting topic; something that for some people occurs almost every day, yet something that I have never bothered to question. I just knew it happened. This consequently made me think of spicy foods, and I wondered why they cause the sensation of burning in the mouth, and sometimes even make people sweat. As it turns out, there is a chemical in chili peppers that excite receptors in the skin that normally respond to heat. The chemical is called capsaicin, and it stimilates nerves that indicate extreme temperature. It also stimulates the nerves that only respond to mild temperature increases, the ones that give off the sensation of moderate warmth. So basically, the chemical causes the nerves to give off two messages to the brain: 'I am an intense stimulus,' and 'I am warmth.' Together these stimuli define the sensation of a burn. Here's the article that I found if you'd like to know more!

A similar feeling that I experience is when I put on my Original Burt's Bees chapstick. My lips feel cool and refreshed after I use it. I wonder if this happens for the same reason mint has a cooling effect on someone's mouth. I found out that there is peppermint in the original Burt's Bees chapstick, so the same thing is going on there! I also wondered about why my lips get addicted to the chapstick. Could it be from the minty cooling sensation? I'm not addicted to mint gum though, are others? Is there a connection?

This is a topic I never really thought much about with gum, but more so with brushing my teeth. I've always wondered what it is about minty tooth paste that makes eating anything afterwards an awful experience, as well as why every liquid seems to be ten times colder. So now I know! But i've also always been curious why whenever I have soda or ice cream, I'm extremely turned off by the thought of indulging in the other? It seems for me soda and ice cream are just a horrendous mixture. I wonder if there's something in each of those that forces the other to be a lot less appetizing.

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