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May 14, 2013

Peppers for Parkinson’s Prevention

Eating peppers regularly lowers your risk of Parkinson’s disease. Surprise, it's the nicotine!

We are all so familiar with the evils of nicotine that the news that the substance may have redeeming qualities may come as a shock. Studies have suggested that cigarette smoking and other types of tobacco use can lower one’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (PD).

But no one is suggesting that you take up smoking to enjoy the protective benefits of nicotine. According to a new study, all you need to do is eat peppers, which contain small amounts of nicotine, to reduce your risk of developing PD.

People who regularly ate peppers and other vegetables in the Solanaceae family (which includes tomatoes and potatoes) had a significantly reduced risk of developing PD.

Parkinson’s disease is estimated to affect 1 million Americans, with upwards of 60,000 new people being diagnosed every year.

Researchers looked at the health records and eating habits of 490 people with PD and 644 people without it. People who regularly ate peppers and other vegetables in the Solanaceae family (which includes tomatoes and potatoes) had a significantly reduced risk of developing PD.

The more peppers a person ate, the greater the benefit. The risk of having PD was reduced by 30% among people who ate peppers two or more times per week, compared to those who didn’t eat them.

The positive effect was especially strong for people who had never smoked. This makes sense since the change in non-smokers' levels of nicotine and subsequent improvement would likely be greater than that for smokers, who presumably already had elevated levels of nicotine in their systems, courtesy of the tobacco products they ingested.

“Our study is the first to investigate dietary nicotine and risk of developing Parkinson's disease,” said study author Searles Nielsen in a statement. “Similar to the many studies that indicate tobacco use might reduce risk of Parkinson's, our findings also suggest a protective effect from nicotine, or perhaps a similar but less toxic chemical in peppers and tobacco.”

Eating other vegetables didn't seem to cut the risk of PD, suggesting that only nicotine-containing veggies are key. The study shows only an inverse correlation (i.e., more nicotine, less PD) between consuming nicotine and the risk of Parkinson's; it does not provide evidence for a cause-and-effect relationship. There could be some other variable behind the pepper-Parkinson's connection.

The authors note that even secondhand smoke, which contains minimal levels of nicotine, has been shown to reduce risk of PD. The mechanism isn’t totally clear, but it may be that binding of nicotinic receptors in the brain may protect the dopamine-producing neurons that are damaged in PD.

It may seem strange that a chemical we think of as being “bad” for us may actually be of benefit, but so many chemicals that we put into ourselves actually mimic substances that naturally occur within the brain. For example, studies have also shown that caffeine can not only enhance cognition in a moment-to-moment way, but may also protect us from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

More research will be needed to illustrate just how the connection with nicotine works, but in the meantime, it’s not a bad idea to add a few servings of peppers into the diet if you can. Don't even think about starting to smoke.

The study was carried out at the University of Washington, and published in Annals of Neurology.

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