Could eating peppers prevent Parkinson’s?
New research reveals that Solanaceae – a flowering plant family with some species producing foods that are edible sources of nicotine – may provide a protective effect against Parkinson’s disease. The study appearing today in Annals of Neurology, a journal of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society, suggests that eating foods that contain even a small amount of nicotine, such as peppers and tomatoes, may reduce risk of developing Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder caused by a loss of brain cells that produce dopamine. Symptoms include facial, hand, arm, and leg tremors, stiffness in the limbs, loss of balance, and slower overall movement. Nearly one million Americans have Parkinson’s, with 60,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and up to ten million individuals worldwide live with this disease according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson’s, but symptoms are treated with medications and procedures such as deep brain stimulation.
Previous studies have found that cigarette smoking and other forms of tobacco, also a Solanaceae plant, reduced relative risk of Parkinson’s disease. However, experts have not confirmed if nicotine or other components in tobacco provide a protective effect, or if people who develop Parkinson’s disease are simply less apt to use tobacco because of differences in the brain that occur early in the disease process, long before diagnosis.
For the present population-based study Dr. Susan Searles Nielsen and colleagues from the University of Washington in Seattle recruited 490 patients newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the university’s Neurology Clinic or a regional health maintenance organization, Group Health Cooperative. Another 644 unrelated individuals without neurological conditions were used as controls. Questionnaires were used to assess participants’ lifetime diets and tobacco use, which researchers defined as ever smoking more than 100 cigarettes or regularly using cigars, pipes or smokeless tobacco.
Vegetable consumption in general did not affect Parkinson’s disease risk, but as consumption of edible Solanaceae increased, Parkinson’s disease risk decreased, with peppers displaying the strongest association. Researchers noted that the apparent protection from Parkinson’s occurred mainly in men and women with little or no prior use of tobacco, which contains much more nicotine than the foods studied.
“Our study is the first to investigate dietary nicotine and risk of developing Parkinson’s disease,” said Dr. Searles Nielsen. “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 authors recommend further studies to confirm and extend their findings, which could lead to possible interventions that prevent Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s is a brain disease that affects the body and how it moves. Early symptoms include tremors, a shuffling gait, and an overall slowing of physical movement. Yet exercise may be one of the best – and most underutilized – ways of combating the condition, according to the March 2012 Harvard Health Letter.
Several prospective studies that followed tens of thousands of people for many years have shown a correlation between exercise earlier in life and a reduced chance of developing Parkinson’s later on. Exercising in your 30s and 40s – decades before Parkinson’s typically occurs – may reduce the risk of getting Parkinson’s disease by about 30%, notes the Health Letter. Some experts believe the exercise must be vigorous to make a difference. However, because this kind of research can’t prove cause and effect, there is the possibility of “reverse causation”: that is, exercise may not prevent Parkinson’s disease, but instead a very early “preclinical” form of the disease, without clear symptoms, may make people less willing or able to exercise in the first place.
Physical activity is often part of the recommended treatment for Parkinson’s, especially early in the disease. Dr. Edward Wolpow, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the Health Letter’s editorial board, urges his patients with early Parkinson’s to work on building up their strength, balance, and endurance, “because they will be needed later on.” People with Parkinson’s often receive targeted physical therapy, but they may also benefit from many other types of exercise and overall physical fitness. Exercise – especially if it’s aerobic, or gets the heart beating faster — seems to have a protective effect on brain tissue. There are fewer findings specific to Parkinson’s, but studies have found that people with the disease who are in good cardiovascular shape score better on thinking and muscle control tests and may live longer.
Full citation: “Nicotine from Edible Solanaceae and Risk of Parkinson Disease.” Susan Searles Nielsen, Gary M. Franklin, W.T. Longstreth Jr, Phillip D. Swanson and Harvey Checkoway. Annals of Neurology; Published May 9, 2013 (DOI:10.1002/ana.23884).
How Can Parkinson’s Disease be Prevented?
The prevention of Parkinson’s disease is difficult. As researchers have not been able to pinpoint the exact causes for the disease it is difficult to prevent Parkinsons. They are currently researching how genetics and environment affect the likelihood an individual will get Parkinson’s disease. Researchers are looking for a biomarker (a biochemical abnormality that all individuals with Parkinson’s disease might share) that could be seen through screening techniques or chemical testing. They believe that by taking the following precautions an individual may be able to lower their risk of getting Parkinson’s:
# Reducing Exposure to Pesticides and Herbicides: Direct contact with pesticides and herbicides has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. Studies have shown individuals from rural areas that are exposed to pesticides and herbicides for prolonged amounts of times are at a higher risk of getting Parkinson’s.
# Increasing/Reducing Caffeine Levels: New research shows that caffeine may actually help in the prevention of Parkinsons. Researchers studied over 8,000 American men over a 30 year period and found that the men who drank three or more cups of coffee each day were five times less likely to develop Parkinson’s. One theory is that caffeine reduces the number of neurotransmitters that damage the brain. On the other hand, a study by the Harvard School of Medical Health found that woman who drank more than five cups of coffee a day were at a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s.
# Starting/Stopping Smoking: Smoking may reduce the risk of some individuals getting Parkinson’s disease. An American study found that for individuals with certain genetic profiles, smoking acts as protection against the disease. People without the genetic susceptibility may actually increase their chances of getting Parkinson’s if they do smoke however.
About the Journal
Annals of Neurology, the official journal of the American Neurological Association and the Child Neurology Society, publishes articles of broad interest with potential for high impact in understanding the mechanisms and treatment of diseases of the human nervous system. All areas of clinical and basic neuroscience, including new technologies, cellular and molecular neurobiology, population sciences, and studies of behavior, addiction, and psychiatric diseases are of interest to the journal. The journal is published by Wiley on behalf of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society.
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