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Eating Peppers Twice a Week May Slash Parkinson's Risk by 30 Percent

Update Date: May 09, 2013 11:43 AM EDT

Incorporating peppers into your regular diet could help lower your risk of developing Parkinson's disease, a new study reveals.

Scientists found that people who ate peppers at least twice a week were 30 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease than people who ate peppers less than once a week.

The study suggests that the protective benefits may come from dietary nicotine, which has been found in vegetables like peppers and tomatoes, according to the study published Thursday in the journal Annals of Neurology.  

Researchers explain that peppers and tobacco both belong to a family of plants called Solanaceae, a flowering plant family with some species producing foods that are edible sources of nicotine. Past studies have suggested that the nicotine in cigarettes and secondhand smoke may lower the relative risk of Parkinson's disease by protecting certain brains cells from the damage associated with the neurodegenerative disorder.

Nearly one million Americans and ten million people worldwide have Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement. According to the National Parkinson Foundation, 50,000 to 60,000 new cases are diagnosed in the United States each year.

The disease is caused by a loss of brain cells that produce dopamine.  Symptoms of the disease include facial, hand, arm, and leg tremors, stiffness in the limbs, loss of balance, and slower overall movement. There is no cure for Parkinson's and patients are treatment with medications and surgical procedures like deep brain stimulation.

In the current study, researchers compared 490 people who had been newly diagnosed with Parkinson's disease to 644 people who did not have the condition.  Participants were asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire about their lifetime dietary habits and tobacco use.

Researchers found that only 11 percent of Parkinson's patients and 5 percent of people in the control group had a family history of the disease.

While vegetable consumption in general did not affect Parkinson's disease risk, researchers found that as the consumption of edible Solanaceae increased, Parkinson's disease risk decreased, with peppers displaying the strongest association

"Benefits associated with vegetables from the Solanaceae family seemed to be fairly specific," study author Dr. Susan Searles Nielsen, an environmental and occupational health researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, told "While there was some suggestion that tomatoes might also be associated with a reduced risk of Parkinson's, it was not clear," she added.

Researchers found evidence that the more peppers people consumed, the greater the apparent benefit.  The study revealed that people who ate peppers at least five to six times a week cut their Parkinson's risk by an overwhelming 50 percent compared with people who ate them less than once a week.

Researchers noted that the apparent protection from Parkinson's disease occurred mainly in people with little or no prior use of tobacco, which contains significantly more nicotine than the foods studied.

Searles Nielsen explained that the pepper's protective benefits might be "clearer in people who had never used tobacco regularly," because exposure to nicotine from tobacco use "is likely going to overshadow what people would get in their diet".

"Our study is the first to investigate dietary nicotine and risk of developing Parkinson's disease," study author Dr. Susan Searles Nielsen said in a news 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," she explained.

Experts say more studies are needed to confirm the latest findings.

"It is not clear from this study that family members at risk should rush out and start eating red peppers," said Dr. Michael Okun, national medical director for the National Parkinson Foundation, who was not involved in the study, according to Myhealthnewsdaily. "Much work will need to be done to understand the mechanism and to establish potential benefits in the Parkinson's 'at risk' population."

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