Why Do Chile Peppers Make People Cough?

In my house, we really like Mexican food. And Thai food. Oh, and Chinese food. We like all food, I guess, but that’s sort of beside the point. The point is that, because of our tastes, I wind up handling a lot of chile peppers (some people refer to hot peppers as chili peppers, but I prefer to use the Spanish spelling favored in Mexico and the American Southwest, so as not to confuse the peppers with that dish you often put them in). Sometimes these chiles are dried, or in the form of powders, pastes or oils. Often, though, they’re fresh, which means me cleaning and cutting them, which means me curling up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor coughing up a lung and crying like a little girl. Why does that happen?

Feel the Burn

The problem is that capsaicin, the compound that gives chiles their heat and livens up my fajitas and pad thai, doesn’t just work its tingly, burning magic on the tongue, but irritates also some of our other tissues and mucous membranes. Rubbing your eyes or scratching around your nostrils after handling chiles is always unpleasant, but you don’t need chile-to-skin contact to feel the burn. Washing, seeding, chopping and frying chiles can send capsaicin molecules flying into the air, where they can be inhaled and irritate and sensitize your lungs, leading to coughing fits, choking and discomfort while breathing.

Put Out the Fire

If cooking with chiles gets you all choked up, borrow this trick from pro cooks who work with them a lot: wear a damp bandana—or even a dish towel if you’re in a pinch—over your mouth and nose to cut down the amount of capsaicin that can make its way into your airways.

To get the stuff off your hands before you go touching your face, either wash with soap and water or rub some vegetable oil on your hands and then wash with water. Capsaicin is hydrophobic, so just water alone isn’t enough, but the soap and oil will both trap the molecules so they can be rinsed away.

Bonus Capsaicin Factoids for Your Next Cocktail Party

Capsaicin’s tendency to make people cough isn’t always a bad thing, and actually makes the compound pretty useful in medical research. In clinical studies of new cough suppressants, capsaicin is sometimes used to stimulate coughs for the medicine to be tested on.

The venom of Psalmopoeus cambridgei, a tarantula from the West Indies, contains three different peptides that target the same sensory receptors that respond to capsaicin, a really cool example of a plant and an animal using the same chemical methods for self-defense.

Have a big question you'd like Matt to tackle? Email him here, or ask him on Twitter.

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Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too
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There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.

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