A new study suggests that consuming edible nicotine, found in vegetables like peppers and fruits like tomatoes, could prevent Parkinson’s disease.
The findings, published May 9 in the Annals of Neurology, were made by a team of researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle who set out to discover if nicotine consumption affects the chances of developing Parkinson’s.
Parkinson’s disease, caused by a loss of brain cells that produce dopamine, is a movement disorder with symptoms that range from facial ticks to tremors in the hands, arms and legs, limb stiffness, reduced mobility and a loss of balance.
It is estimated that nearly one million Americans have Parkinson’s disease, while up to ten million individuals worldwide may live with the disease. There is no known cure for Parkinson’s. Sufferers may exhibit only mild symptoms at first, but for those with more aggressive onset, they must rely medication and sometimes even procedures like deep-brain stimulation in order to manage their symptoms, which tend to get progressively worse.
Previous findings have shown that smoking cigarettes and tobacco consumption, despite their other health risks, yields an associated decrease in the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s. Therefore, the team were keen to see whether ingesting small doses of nicotine from healthy food sources from the same botanical family as tobacco, Solanaceae, which includes peppers, tomatoes and potatoes, could provide the same result and, at the same time, negate smoking’s risks.
To test this, researchers at the University of Washington’s Neurology Clinic created a population-based study with 490 Parkinson’s disease sufferers diagnosed between 1992-2008, and 644 unrelated people who were “neurologically normal” as controls, all with an average age of 60.
They then attempted to analyze self-reported data on how often study participants consumed peppers, tomatoes, tomato juice and potatoes during adulthood and adjusted against consumption of other vegetables and personal characteristics like age, sex, race/ethnicity, as well as habits like tobacco use and caffeine consumption.
The results affirmed the association between nicotine and decreased risk of developing Parkinson’s.
While general vegetable consumption showed no risk association, eating any of the edible members of Solanaceae family on a regular basis appeared to provide a decreased risk in later developing Parkinson’s disease.
In particular, participants who ate peppers at least twice a week were found to be 30 percent less likely to develop Parkinson’s. Interestingly, the association was strongest in men and women who ate peppers but who had no history of consuming tobacco on a regular basis. Tobacco contains much more nicotine than the foods studied, so this suggests that it may not be nicotine alone, or at all, that is providing the benefit, but another shared property.
“Our study is the first to investigate dietary nicotine and risk of developing Parkinson’s disease,” Dr. Searles Nielsen, lead researcher in the study, is quoted as saying. “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 are now advocating further studies so they can confirm their findings and widen the research field.
The study has been welcomed as an interesting development, but the fact that this was a small study, and that it involved relatively young people when Parkinson’s disease is usually associated with a much older group, limits how useful these findings are in the short-term.
Some dietitians, however, have said this study may lend support to the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet, one that incorporates vegetables like peppers and tomatoes. However, while a number of observational studies have been carried out on this topic, there remains no conclusive proof that a Mediterranean-style diet is of overwhelming benefit.
One last interesting note is that the nutritional content of vegetables is affected by their growing conditions. One future area of study, if the nicotine benefit is confirmed, may be whether organically farmed produce stands to offer a better nutritional profile and associated benefit than mass-farmed vegetables.
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