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Can peppers help prevent Parkinson’s disease?

People who regularly eat vegetables that contain nicotine, such as peppers and tomatoes, may be less likely to get Parkinson’s disease than people who don’t, according to a new study.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

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Parkinson’s disease is an illness that affects the way you move. It happens when nerve cells in the brain stop producing a substance called dopamine that carries messages between cells. This means messages from your brain to your muscles get disrupted. Some scientists think that nicotine might help protect the brain cells that produce dopamine.

Some studies have found that smokers have less chance of developing Parkinson’s than non-smokers. However, this possible benefit is far outweighed by the damage that smoking is known to cause. For example, cigarette smoking is one of the leading causes of early death.

Vegetables from the same plant family as tobacco, such as peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and aubergines, also contain nicotine. A new study looked at whether eating these vegetables might affect a person’s chance of getting Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers compared the diets of 490 people who were newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s and 644 people who didn’t have the disease. Both groups were asked to recall their diet over their adult life.

What does the new study say?

The researchers didn’t find a link between eating vegetables (all kinds) and the risk of developing Parkinson’s, but they did find a link between eating vegetables that contain nicotine and the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Eating vegetables that contain nicotine seemed to protect people from getting Parkinson’s disease.

The link was the strongest for peppers. People who regularly ate peppers had about a 30 percent reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s. The link between eating other vegetables that contain nicotine, such as tomatoes and potatoes, and a reduced risk of Parkinson’s was weak or non-existent.

How reliable is the research?

This is the first study to look at the link between eating vegetables that contain nicotine and the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. It is a well-designed study, but it has two main weaknesses. First, people’s diets were “self-reported”. People had to remember the sorts of foods they ate over their entire adult life. It is possible that many people didn’t have an accurate memory of their diet and this would have affected the results.

Second, this study only shows a link between eating peppers and a reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. This type of study, called an observational study, can’t prove that one thing causes another.

Although the researchers were careful to take factors into account that might affect the figures, such as tobacco use and caffeine consumption, it is possible that there is another factor affecting the figures that they have not taken into account.

What does this mean for me?

People with close relatives who have Parkinson’s may be more likely than other people to develop the condition. So if you have a relative with Parkinson’s, you may be interested in keeping up with new research. From this one study, though, it’s not possible to say if eating peppers will reduce your risk of getting Parkinson’s disease. However, there are plenty of good reasons for eating a diet rich in vegetables.

Published on May 10, 2013

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