After a long weekend of staying up late, drinking merrily and enjoying the company of many close friends I found myself being a little under the weather. This is pretty atypical for me as I’ve only ever had the flu twice and I usually pass through the cold season relatively unscathed. Whilst there’s thousands of possible reasons for this I’ve always found that should I find myself in the beginnings of an infection a strong dose of chilli seems to make it subside, or at least take my mind off it long enough to start feeling better. I realised yesterday that whilst I might have some anecdotal evidence to support this I hadn’t really looked into the science behind it and the stuff I uncovered in my search has been pretty intriguing.
For starters there are some strange experiments out there that have used chilli (well the chemical that gives it the burn, capsaicin) as an apparently reliable method to induce coughing in test subjects. The first one I came across was testing whether or not coughing is a voluntary action and the results seem to indicate that the coughing we get with the common cold is a mixture of both. Other experiments showed that people with an upper respiratory tract infection (which includes things like the common cold) are more prone to coughing when exposed to a capsaicin/citric acid mixture. None of these really helped me in understanding whether or not chilli aids in reducing the symptoms of the common cold or helping to cure it but a couple other studies do provide some potential paths for benefits.
Subjects with perennial rhinitis, a permanent allergic reaction to stimulus that doesn’t vary by season, showed a marked decrease in nasal complaints when treated with a solution of 0.15mg of capsaicin per nostal every 2nd or 3rd day for 7 treatments. The benefits lasted up to 9 months after the treatment and incredibly there were no adverse effects on cellular homeostasis or overall neurogenic staining (which sounds rather impressive but is a little out of my league to explain). Whilst this doesn’t directly support the idea that consumption helps the common cold it does provide a potential mechanism for it to relieve symptoms. However how much capsaicin ends up in your sinuses while eating it isn’t something I could find any data on.
Other studies have found similar effects when capsaicin solutions have been sprayed into the nasal cavity with the improvements lasting for up to 6 months. That particular study was a little on the small side though with only 10 patients and no controls present but the result do fall in line with the previous study which had much more rigorous controls. The theme appears to resonate through most of the other studies that I could find: topical application in the sinuses is good, inhaling it will cause you to erupt in a coughing fit.
Anecdotally that seems to line up with the experiences I’ve had and it’s good to see it backed up by some proper science. As for consumed chilli helping overall however there doesn’t appear to be any studies that support that idea but there are potential avenues for it to work. So like many scientists I’ll have to say that the results are interesting but require a lot more research to be done. Whether it’s worthy of investigating is something I’ll leave up as an exercise to the reader, but I’m sure we’d find no shortage of spice loving test subjects who’d be willing to participate.
When I worked at Dick Smith Electronics I had one of the greatest staff benefits around: all items in the store could be had for cost price plus 10%. This meant for heavily marked up items (the most common things being add-ons or bulk items) I could get them for a steal, sometimes an order of magnitude lower than what the sticker price was. One particular area where this came in handy was audio/video cables as they were routinely 10x~20x their cost price. Being the budding audiophile that I was these cheap cables were a godsend, allowing me to hook up my various bits of AV equipment for a fraction of the cost. One thing started to become apparent though, the shelf price difference between the premium cables (them fancy gold plated, oxygen free copper deals) was no where near the gap in their cost price, leading me to wonder what the difference really was.
Once I began my studies at university however the differences, or more aptly the lack thereof, became quite apparent. Indeed there was little difference between those cables, especially when used in real world circumstances. Further I was confounded by the idea that digital signals, ones carried by optical TOSLINK connectors, could be somehow influenced by the transmitting cable. In my own tests with some of the cables from the store and the same cable that came with my MiniDisc player (yes, I spent way too much on one) I couldn’t find any differences in the resulting recordings, despite the store cables being noticeably thicker.
The reason for this is, whilst there’s a little bit of room to argue that a better quality cable will produce a better quality signal for analog, a digital signal either makes it through completely or not at all. The cable quality then, whilst needing to be above a certain threshold for it to work, makes no difference whatsoever once its past said threshold. This hasn’t stopped the premium cable manufacturers from claiming otherwise however charging rather ludicrous for products that amount to, let’s be honest here, nothing more than a $5 cable. I’d also go as far to say that premium cables for pure analog signals aren’t worth it either, especially at the price point that some of them command.
Of course I don’t believe you should just take my word for it (however compelling you might find it to be) nor do I advocate running out and spending wads of cash on cables to see if there’s a difference. Instead just have a look at posts like this one on Audioholics where self proclaimed audiophiles could not reliably distinguish between a premium speaker cable and ordinary speaker wire (and even coat hanger wire). Indeed anyone who’s attempting to sell you cable based on the idea that it will somehow improve the quality of the picture or sound on the other end is either deluded, misinformed or simply ignorant of the underlying science that governs modern audio visual equipment.
There will be those who will say that I don’t understand the differences and that there’s tangible benefit in getting these ludicrously over priced cables. In all seriousness those expensive cables might actually sound better for them, through some wild psychoacoustic placebo effect where they’re actually willing themselves into believing that its better. It’s an unfortunate situation for them as the cheaper cables (as long as they’re aware of them) will in fact sound worse. It’s from these people that the premium cable manufacturers will continue to extract value and unfortunately I don’t believe there’s a whole lot that can be done about it.
So if you’re on the fence about getting those expensive cables or if you don’t know if you should then the answer is pretty clear: don’t. Your cash is much better spent on a higher quality TV set or speakers than it ever will be spent on cables to connect those devices together. Should a salesman tell you otherwise ask for a demo of them side by side and see if you can spot the difference yourself. If you do then I won’t stop you from buying them, but know that in reality the difference is all contained within your head.