Study: Eating more peppers could ward off Parkinson's disease

Norman Byrd's picture

A new study suggests that eating peppers more often could increase an individual's neuronal protections against the onset of Parkinson's disease.

If you like peppers in your food, you will most likely welcome the findings from a new study out of the University of Washington in Seattle, where research indicates that there could be a link between pepper consumption and the ability for an individual to ward off the neurologically degenerative disease known as Parkinson's.

According to a (via Yahoo News) report on May 9, research findings show that adding peppers to an individual's diet appeared to reduce the risk of that individual of developing Parkinson's Disease. There also seemed additional benefit -- that is, less risk of developing the neurological disorder -- when an individual consumed more peppers. Individuals consuming peppers at least twice per week saw their Parkinson's risk decline by 30 percent compared to those who ate peppers less than once per week. Those individuals in the study that consumed peppers five to six times per week on average saw their odds of developing Parkinson's reduced 50 percent more than those who consumed peppers less than once per week.

Susan Searles Nielsen, an environmental and occupational health researcher involved in the study, noted, "Benefits associated with vegetables from the Solanaceae family seemed to be fairly specific." In short, other vegetables didn't seem to have quite the same effect, even those within the same family as peppers (like potatoes and eggplant). "While there was some suggestion that tomatoes (also in the Solanaceae family) might also be associated with a reduced risk of Parkinson's, it was not clear," Searles Nielsen added.

Parkinson's is a disease that affects over a million Americans and five-to-six million worldwide, according to the National Parkinson Foundation. It is a disease that can see up to 80 percent of the neurons that produce a chemical called dopamine damaged. That damage affects muscle function, which is exhibited in the disease's telltale physiological tics and involuntary movements. But what is it about peppers that might act as a protectant or preventive against the disease?

Interestingly enough, the peppers -- red, yellow, green -- all contain nicotine but in small amounts. And although nicotine has its drawbacks and detractors (from studies on the effects of tobacco use, of course. Tobacco, too, is a member of the Solanaceae family), there have been studies that cigarettes and second smoke actually protect certain brain cells from the damage of Parkinson's.

The results of a French study in 2011 suggested that targeting nicotine receptors in those with Parkinson's with nicotine raised the possibility of rescuing damaged neurons. This, in turn, raised hopes of developing "novel therapies" to address the disease.

The study itself compared dietary histories of people that had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and a control group that had not. Those participating were asked to complete a detailed questionaire of their lifetime dietary habits and tobacco use. Of these, 11 percent of the Parkinson's group was found to have a family history of the disease (which also raises risk of development), while only 5 percent of the control group indicated such a family history.

In the findings, Searles Nielsen noted that the benefits were "clearer in people who had never used tobacco regularly."

Still, she cautioned that the study was not definitive and only showed an association.

Dr. Michael Okun, national medical director for the National Parkinson Foundation, also noted that the findings weren't conclusive and cautioned that at risk people shouldn't "rush out and start eating red peppers." Although the research was "interesting," he said, "Much work will need to be done to understand the mechanism and to establish potential benefits in the Parkinson's 'at risk' population."

Searles Nielsen suggests that further study could lead to interventions that could prevent Parkinson's.

"Our study is the first to investigate dietary nicotine and risk of developing Parkinson's disease," Searles Nielsen said, according to a press release. "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."

The study was published on May 9 in the journal Annals of Neurology.

(photo credit: Symphony999, Creative Commons)

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