A couple of times over the last year or so, we’ve had people taste our Awesome sauces and instantly start hiccuping. As one of these people observed, it doesn’t stop her from enjoying hot stuff, far from it, but it makes it awkward to do so in public. We were intrigued and pleased to find recently a scientific explanation of the phenomenon.
Those of you living in or near Canada might be familiar with the CBC show Quirks & Quarks. Every so often, they ask their listeners to send in questions, and the following explanation comes from Dr. George Bubernik, Assoc. Professor of Physiology in the Department of Zoology, at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
“This is one of those physiological questions that are not easy to answer, because we don’t have all of the answers. Hiccups are caused by a spastic contraction of the major respiratory muscle, which is called the diaphragm. It is located between the chest cavity and the abdominal cavity, and it is kind of dome-shaped. When it contracts, it creates a vacuum that sucks air into the lungs. When it releases, the air puffs out. Hiccups are just an uncontrolled contraction of this muscle.
As to what causes hiccups, we know that overstimulation of the upper part of the stomach and the lower part of the esophagus, the tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach, will cause a contraction of the diaphragm. The top part of the stomach goes right through the diaphragm. When you stimulate it by eating large chunks of food, drinking a freshly opened pop with lots of fizz, or eating very sweet or very spicy food, you can overstimulate the nerves in this area, and hiccups will result.
The overstimulation can happen in a lot of different ways. I suspect that in this case the spicy food is probably causing changes in the chemistry of the stomach and may cause production of gas. As this gas rises in the stomach, it puts pressure on the diaphragm. The diaphragm responds by contracting, and these repeated contractions are what we call hiccups.
Many people are interested in trying to control hiccups, and you probably know of half a dozen old-fashioned remedies. Some of these remedies are directed towards the pressure against the diaphragm. So, you can bend over, you can pull your knees towards your chin, or you can try to exhale with your mouth closed. Holding your breath also puts pressure on the diaphragm, but it also just calms you and your overexcited diaphragm. That is also probably the secret behind my grandmother’s favourite remedy, which was to place a a sugar cube on the top of the tongue and let it melt slowly.”
So now you know. And, just in case, the scientific word for hiccups is Singultus.
The bit about hiccups actually comes from The Quirks and Quarks question book: 101 answers to listeners’ questions, published by McClelland & Stewart, 2002.