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Does a Pepper a Day Keep Parkinson’s Away?

Chili Pepper

Story at-a-glance -

  • Eating peppers – but not other vegetables in the Solanaceae family -- was associated with a 19 percent lower risk of Parkinson’s disease in a new study
  • The association was strongest among those who had never smoked, and it’s thought the nicotine naturally found in the peppers may have a neuroprotective benefit
  • Although Parkinson’s disease is said to have no known cause, eating a varied whole-foods diet that includes healthful veggies like peppers appears to be one simple way to lower your risk
  • Avoiding exposure to environmental toxins like pesticides, industrial solvents and mercury is also important in avoiding Parkinson’s

By Dr. Mercola

Surprisingly, despite the dramatically increased risk of cancer and related adverse health effects associated with smoking cigarettes, smoking has actually been found to be associated with a reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system.

The most obvious symptoms of Parkinson’s are movement-related, e.g. shaking and rigidity. This apparently beneficial link with smoking is often attributed to the nicotine in cigarettes, which is thought to have a potentially neuroprotective effect.

Certain foods contain natural amounts of nicotine, including peppers, which researchers recently found may also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s.

Eating Peppers May Reduce Parkinson’s Risk by 19 Percent

Peppers are a member of the Solanaceae family of vegetables, informally known as nightshades, which also includes tobacco, tomatoes and potatoes.

Upon analyzing the vegetable consumption, tobacco and caffeine use of nearly 500 newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients as well as a group of healthy controls, researchers found that eating peppers – but not other vegetables in the Solanaceae family -- was associated with a 19 percent lower risk of Parkinson’s.1

The association was strongest among those who had never smoked. Researchers said in a statement:2

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."

Parkinson's disease is a neurological disorder in which neurons in a region of dopamine-producing cells within your brain known as the substantia nigra, required for normal movement, begin to die.

As a disease that currently cannot be cured, prevention of Parkinson’s disease is crucial. Eating a varied whole-foods diet that includes healthful veggies like peppers appears to be one simple way to lower your risk, especially since a lack of folate is also linked to Parkinson’s (and veggies are the only source of this important vitamin; most vitamins contain the semi-synthetic analog known as folic acid).

Caffeine, Omega-3 Fats and Other Dietary Strategies to Help Prevent Parkinson’s

In addition to dietary nicotine, dietary caffeine, such as that from coffee, has also been linked to a lower risk of Parkinson’s. One study even found that the daily caffeine equivalent in two to four cups of coffee may modestly improve Parkinson’s movement symptoms.3

Caffeine, which is doparminergic (stimulates dopamine release), may be one reason why green tea has also been linked to a lower Parkinson’s risk, although one study suggested that it’s green tea’s polyphenols that offer neuroprotection that might benefit Parkinson’s patients.4

Another important consideration is animal-based omega-3 fats, which may protect against Parkinson’s by preventing the misfolding of a protein resulting from a gene mutation in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Huntington's.5 Animal-based omega-3 fats contain two fatty acids crucial to human health, DHA and EPA. Most of the neurological benefits of omega-3 oils are derived from the DHA, which is one of the major building blocks of your brain.

About half of your brain and eyes are made up of fat, much of which is DHA -- making it an essential nutrient for optimal brain function. Your brain activity actually depends greatly upon the functions provided by its outer, fatty waxy membrane to act as an electrical nerve-conduction cable, so adding omega-3 fats to your diet, via wild-caught fish or a supplement like krill oil, is important.

Vitamin D and CoQ10: Two Nutrients for Parkinson’s Protection

There is a correlation between insufficient levels of vitamin D and the development of early Parkinson's disease. It used to be thought that vitamin D deficiency is a symptom of Parkinson's, but recent research squarely implicated vitamin D deficiency as one of the causes of Parkinson's.6

The best way to optimize your vitamin D level is through midday sun exposure or a safe tanning bed as that virtually eliminates any risk of overdose. As a very general guide, you need to expose about 40 percent of your entire body to the sun for approximately 20 minutes between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm, or until your skin turns the lightest shade of pink.

If you’re using an oral supplement, recent studies suggest adults typically need about 8,000 IUs of oral vitamin D3 per day in order to get serum levels above 40 ng/ml. However, remember that if you take oral vitamin D, you also need to boost your vitamin K2, either through your food choices or a supplement, as this will prevent soft tissue calcification. You can find more details on optimizing your vitamin D levels here.

Another often-overlooked nutritional consideration for Parkinson’s is the antioxidant compound coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), levels of which are often low in people with the disease. One study found that the progression of Parkinson's disease was significantly slower in people taking the highest dose of CoQ10.7 If you’re taking statin cholesterol-lowering drugs, this issue is particularly important as these medications deplete your body of CoQ10, among over 300 other statin linked adverse health effects, making supplementation with CoQ10 (or ideally, the reduced form, called ubiquinol) important.

Environmental Toxins Likely Play a Role in Parkinson’s Development

The risk of Parkinson’s disease clearly increases with exposure to certain environmental toxins. For instance, neurotoxins like pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are substances that have been shown to cause disruptions and/or damage to the neurological system, including your brain. Rotenone and paraquat are two specific pesticides linked to an increased risk of Parkinson's disease, and both are lipophilic, meaning they resist breaking down in water and accumulate in your fat. Both are also known to cross your blood-brain barrier.

Even ambient exposure to pesticides has been found to increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease “considerably.”8

Exposure to industrial solvents, including TCE, a common degreasing agent and dry-cleaning chemical, is also linked to Parkinson’s disease,9 further strengthening the link between this disease and environmental toxins. Along with avoiding the use of solvents and pesticides in your home and garden, eating organic foods as much as possible will help you avoid unnecessary exposure to chemicals like pesticides.

This is all the more important today considering that glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup have also been linked to Parkinson’s-related disorders, and these chemical residues can be found in virtually all food containing GMOs.10 Another important and often-overlooked risk factor is “silver” amalgam dental fillings, which contain mercury. Mercury becomes a biochemical train wreck in your body, causing your cell membranes to leak, and inhibits key enzymes your body needs for energy production and removal of toxins. Mercury toxicity can lead to major inflammation and chronic illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease.

Lifestyle Changes Are Important in Preventing Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson's disease is still classified as idiopathic, meaning it has no identifiable cause. However, just as researchers identified that eating peppers may be able to lower your risk, and pesticides and other environmental toxins have been shown to increase your risk, there are steps you can take to modify your risk of this disease. To recap some of the most important, as well as add a few additional recommendations:

  • Avoid pesticide and insecticide exposure (as well as exposure to other environmental toxins like solvents)
  • Exercise regularly. It's one of the best ways to protect against the onset of symptoms of Parkinson's disease
  • Get plenty of sunshine to optimize your vitamin D levels
  • Eat more vegetables, which are high in folic acid
  • Make sure your body has healthy levels of iron and manganese (neither too much nor too little of either)
  • Consider supplementing coenzyme Q10 or its reduced form ubiquinol, which may help to fight the disease