Monday, April 30, 2012

Medical Mondays: Some Like It Hot

After a recent trip to New Orleans, I've been thinking about peppers a lot. Like the stuff in this bottle. I think it invented the word "awesomesauce."

(I'm kind of pissed. I wasted decades of my gustatory life on the wrong hot sauce. Bye-bye Tabasco! Live, learn, and keep eating, I say.)

Peppers have been used for thousands of years to flavor, heal, and even as a weapon. I can think of a lot of ways pepper can end up in a fiction manuscript, so here we go!

I'm going to concentrate on the compound capsaicin, which naturally found in chili peppers and is the key component to the hotness factor.

Capsaicin is naturally found in the fruit of the genus Capsicum (chili peppers, cayenne, scotch bonnets, habanero, jalapeno). It's mostly found in the pithy part that holds the seeds. It causes varying degrees of burning and irritation. If ingested in large doses, capsaicin can kill humans (but this is virtually impossible by "accidentally" eating too many chili peppers.)

Why are some peppers so hot? The irritant nature may be a mechanism for protection and seed dispersion. Mammals (including us) might have chomped the fruits and destroyed the seeds during our chomping. Thus, the capsaicin may have warded off hungry mammals. However, birds are not affected by the capsaicin, and tend to swallow the seeds whole, pooping them out for the dispersal needed for future chili pepper generations.

How hot is hot? The Schoville scale is used to show how potent the hotness of different peppers or compounds can be.


Let's talk about Pepper Spray. Pepper in offensive/defensive methods have been used for a long time. 400 B.C. the Chinese would fling bags of pepper and spices at their opponents. (click here for reference; here's another good history on pepper spray.). Today, capsaicin or synthetic capsaicin are used in pepper sprays against humans and animals as a supposedly non-lethal method. Its use is very limited depending on which state you live in, as well as which country.

I am so glad I'm not that guy on the left. (Source: Wikipedia)
 Effects of Pepper Spray: Because of the severely irritating nature of capsaicin, a person sprayed in the face will immediately close their eyes, cough, and experience trouble breathing. The eyes can feel like they are "boiling" under the closed lids. Some amount of ingestion often happens, which adds to the discomfort. The overall effects can last anywhere from 30 minutes to hours. Though considered non-lethal, death can occur if a person has a history of asthma or lung problems, or can't breathe well enough due to being physically restrained. For more details on the effects, see this great summary in Wikipedia. 

My personal experience with pepper spray. After college while I was living in NYC, my roommate got her hands on some pepper spray. I can't remember why, maybe to have in her purse for protection. We were hanging out with some friends, and she decided she'd spray one little squirt inside the apartment, just to see how strong it was. Not a lot, and not directed at anyone--just one little toot in the air.

Well, within seconds, I was coughing and hacking. My airways felt like I'd poured needles down them. My eyes were tearing like crazy. We ran to the opposite end of the apartment, but it was still so strong. We spend the next hour with the windows open, coughing and gagging with our heads lolling outside. After one, teensy little spray! That stuff was really scary.

Medical Therapy: Traditionally, peppers have been used externally as a means of increasing circulation, warming the skin, and as a pain reliever. Internally, it's been used to improve digestion, as a tonic, and to counter infections. Today, caspaicin is being explored as a use in treatment of diabetes and cancer. Its most common use is in creams and patches to treat pain from sore muscles and joints, as well as neuropathic pain (pain arising due to nerve dysfunction). Medications ranging from 0.025% to 8% concentration are applied (with gloves) to help ease pain over a period of time.

How does it work? It's thought to work in two ways. Capsaicin is irritating and warming, so there is a theory of "counterirritation" that the treatment distracts from the original pain. However, it's also thought to deplete Substance P (responsible for pain signalling in nerves), thus decreasing pain.

Who knew peppers were so versatile?


On that hot and spicy note, have a good Monday everyone!

If you've got a fictional medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at
  All I ask is that you become a follower and post a link on your blog when I post your answer. This is for fictional scenarios, only. Please check out the boring but necessary disclaimer on my sidebar ---> Also, don't forget to stop by Laura Diamond's Mental Health Mondays and Sarah Fine's The Strangest Situation for great psychiatric and psychological viewpoints on all things literary. :)

45 comments:

Old Kitty said...

Bad pepper spray! :-(

Oh but I love peppers as food! I don't think I'm brave enough for the really hot chilli type peppers but peppers as flavour is just yummy!

And isn't this plant so intelligent too? It evolved its chilliness to protect its seed and ward of being eaten - but it's made it palatable for birds so that they may disperse the seeds and spread! What a plant!

Take care
x

Paul S said...

This post brought to mind the scene in the film Dumb And Dumber where Harry and LLoyd accidentally kill Mafia hitman Mr Mentaliano by tricking him into eating an atomic pepper at Dante's Inferno restaurant.
Atomic peppers must be 100% capsaicin!!

Happy Monday Lydia.

Shelly said...

We enjoy all types of peppers here. I remember the first time I worked with habaneros, although I had taken the necessary precautions, soon I felt like my respiratory system was going to seize up, that my eyes would pop out of their sockets, and that I had dreadfully underestimated the power of these little things.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Interestingly enough, I enjoy really spicy foods, but don't like eating the peppers themselves. Something about their texture, I think.

Give me the flakes and sauce, any day, but leave the chopped up peppers out of my food, please!

Laura Pauling said...

Spraying pepper spray in a room, just to see, sounds exactly what a college-age student would do. LOL. At least you understood its power!

Natalie Aguirre said...

We love peppers. I grow them every year and use them for hot sauce.

Thanks for sharing all the tidbits about peppers. Too bad about your roommate spraying it in your apartment. Who would have guessed the effect?

Justine Dell said...

I love watching those foods show where they make super spicy foods and talk about that scale. Some things are totally crazy! There's apparently some extract that some places uses that is pure "heat" on the scale (off the scale!) and has no flavor. IT BURNS. Crazy stuff. Now, I like spicy! But I'm not sure I would like that spicy.

And I'm all for foor weapons. Well, any kind of weapons. ;-)

~JD

Karen Lange said...

Yes, who knew? Interesting stuff, thanks for sharing!

mooderino said...

A vegetable you can weaponize, not too many of them about.

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino
The Funnily Enough

Slamdunk said...

Oh yuck the power of pepper spray. When I was employed in the field, we carried a spray that was a mix--tear gas for the longer lasting effects, and pepper spray that, as you describe, works immediately.

On eating peppers, the Mrs. hates spicy foods so I have to wait for may annual trip to see my father in Texas to eat spicy. He knows that the Tex-Mex restaurant is the first place that we go after I land at the airport.

Jaye Robin Brown said...

My daughter was always so evil to her brother at restaurants, trying to sneak hot sauce into his drink. Me, I love peppers!

Coleen Patrick said...

Some neighbors did the same thing with pepper spray in their house. They were curious--and I think they just didn't believe it really worked. Of course within minutes all of them were running out of the house. :)
By the way my husband loves sriracha sauce--he puts it on everything!

JL Stratton said...

Hey, what's wrong with Tabasco? Great article. I've had a long-time love affair with pepper sauce, but not the really really hot kind. I go more fore flavor.

Anyway, I recently traveled through Lousiana as well. We stopped at Avary Island to visit the tabasco farm. Unfortunately, it was the weekend so we were unable to view workers actually packaging the bottles. I bought some official tabasco pepper seeds and have attempted unsuccessfully to grow them.

Anyway, great article. I simply love your medical Mondays!

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Word of advice: always experiment with pepper spray in someone else's apartment! I am always fascinated by your medical Mondays. Great post as usual, Roland

Munk said...

Hot.
Might work in lieu of a defibrillator, but I still need a sheet.
Munk.

Sarah Allen said...

Whoa...who knew? That's awesome! I can pretty much only take the sweet bell peppers, I'm not much of a hot person :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Heather said...

Thanks to my profession I know this one all too well. In fact, I was what we call an OC trainer for a while. We are 'recommended' to receive exposure once a year in training. It used to be required but due medical reasons they don't require it anymore. I've been that guy on the left. Not fun.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I have heard of may girls in India carrying pepper sprays in their purses as defense. Its supposed to be lethal and can hamper the opponent big time.

Bathwater said...

That was a nice switch no one actually died today ;)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like spicy peppers but I'll avoid the pepper spray.

Krispy said...

I had no idea peppers were THAT versatile! I've heard similar stories about testing pepper spray like that in college. haha. Luckily, I've never been involved.

Aside from that, though I can't handle that much spiciness, I do love sriracha. So good!

Deb Salisbury said...

Fascinating! Jalapenos are toooo hot for me, and they're pretty low on the heat scale.

My mom used to use the "counterirritation" technique on us - if she thought we were faking pain, she'd step on one of our feet and tell us now we wouldn't notice the original pain. LOL!

Mark K said...

Sadly I'm a spice-wimp. The most basic korma sauce can cause me to sweat tiny beads of perspiration - anything else is a no-no. Even too much garlic makes me feel ill.

Barbara Watson said...

Wow! Seriously. Who knew so many uses of pepper.

Alleged Author said...

I adore all kinds of hot peppers. We have at least 15 different hot sauces in our fridge!

vbtremper said...

I'm a fan of habanero, and we must have about 13 different hot sauces in our fridge right now, but I still love Tabasco. It's just the right flavor and heat for some dishes. Despite my love of heat, when my husband roasts poblanos or any other hot pepper on the stove, I have to hide in my room for at least an hour. The capsaicin in the air makes me cough.

-Vicki

Carrie Butler said...

My eyes were tearing up just reading that! Wow. What an interesting topic, Lydia! :)

Nancy Thompson said...

Very interesting. I used pepper spray on a drunk cowboy in a barroom brawl once. Took that 275 pound sucker DOWN!!

Yael said...

Geeking out here. I have a special relationship with capsaicin, since A) my lab project involves studying TRPV1, the capsaicin receptor, and B) I have a tendency to quite literally get high off of spicy food. (Capsaicin indirectly causes the body to produce endorphins.)

Shelley Munro said...

I'm not a huge fan of hot and spicy. IMO anything spicy kills off taste buds and the meal is wrecked! I han't thought of the history of pepper spray. Plot bunny alert! Off to check off the links. Thanks for the great post.

Olga said...

It's very interesting, informative, always educational, and presented from your unique point of view.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Thank you for this great post! I considered getting Pepper Spray in college, but instead got one of those alarm things on my key chain -- when you yank it out it made all sorts of horrible noise. Thankfully I never had to use it! I'm so glad you were okay after your close encounter with the stuff. Ach!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Ow on the pepper spray! That's why I don't carry bear spray when I hike--I'm pretty sure it would just flavor me up for the bear.

Crystal Pistol said...

Birds are lucky they can poop out spicy seeds with no ill effects.

I eat spicy food and suffer greatly later. Burn. Burn. Burn.

TMI? Sorry. I'm not usually so vulgar.

Theresa Milstein said...

I had no idea the peppers were so versatile. My husband son love to go to East Coast Grill a few times a year for their Hell Night.

http://www.eastcoastgrill.net/menus/hellmenu.htm

You can also order the pasta off menu. If you can finish it on your own, you get a free cookbook by the owner. Most people can eat only a few bites of the pasta.

November Rain - k~ said...

I always enjoy your posts. This one is begging to become part of a novel... :-)

Casey L. Clark said...

I love Louisiana Hot Sauce! I use it on almost everything! :)

This was a very interesting post...especially the DM/CA uses! Can't wait to tell my husband that hot sauce is practically health food! Lol!

David P. King said...

Now I'm craving spicy food. Excellent post! I've been toying with using pepper powder for the exact example you stated (for a story). :)

Clara said...

Oh how I love medical Mondays! Thanks for sharing Lydia, this was just grand, really! One time, a friend and I dared eat some food with a sauce that had the hottest grade on the scale (the only thing 'hotter' was pepper spray).
It was not.funny.at.all.

Kelly Polark said...

I remember coming into an area and immediately coughing and later found out that someone had sprayed pepper spray there earlier. Potent!

And I may be one of the few who doesn't enjoy spicy peppers! I never eat hot sauce ever!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

This is really interesting. I'm not a fan of hot peppers or spicy anything. My eyes started watering just reading about your pepper spray in the apartment incident.

Nas Dean said...

A very interesting post on peppers today, Lydia. I love hot pepper in food as I like spicy. But Pepper spray- oh no!

Stephen Page said...

I love hot sauce.

Kristy Shen said...

My Sichuanese stomach approves! Hot peppers are like crack to me.

Jenny Woolf said...

Mm, didn't know any of this. I am usually quite curious but for some reason had never felt any curiosity about peppers! So all this was new to me and I found it very interesting.

 
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