When I tell people that I can’t eat nightshades, they often give me a perplexed stare! I then try to briefly explain what nightshades are and the adverse effects they have on my physical wellbeing. They usually respond with a “huh….” and move on!
Nightshades are a large family of plants that also go by their more scientific name, Solanaceae. And when I say large, I mean LARGE! There are more than two thousand plant species in the nightshade family, the majority of which are inedible and many are highly poisonous, like the infamous deadly nightshade. However, the ones that concern us most in the Western diet are extremely familiar, eaten regularly and are seemingly innocent, including:
potatoes (not sweet potatoes or yams)
peppers (such as bell peppers, chili peppers, habanero, cayenne pepper and paprika—but not peppercorns)
Other nightshades include:
goji berries (the new darling of the antioxidant crowd)
ashwagandha (a commonly prescribed Ayurvedic herb)
cape gooseberries (not normal gooseberries)
ground cherries (not regular cherries)
garden huckleberries (not blueberries).
The trouble with nightshades
In the Western diet, it’s super easy to consume nightshades at every meal. Your might have salsa on your scrambled eggs at breakfast, a side of fries with your lunch, and eggplant parmigiana at dinner. That’s a lot of nightshades!
Nightshades contain certain chemical compounds that make them a common food sensitivity and a problematic food for those with autoimmunity and other inflammatory diseases.
One such chemical are lectins which have the important role of protecting the plant from pests. In fact, all plants contain lectins, but not all dietary lectins are problematic. The lectins found in nightshades are pro-inflammatory and are known to cause cell membrane disruption in the digestive tract, leading to intestinal permeability also known as “leaky gut.” Intestinal permeability is believed to contribute to the development of autoimmunity.
The glycoalkaloids found in nightshades are known to stimulate and exaggerate an immune response. Diets high in nightshades results in increased markers of inflammation. What’s more, it has been hypothesized that even low level toxic exposure from more moderate consumption of nightshades can contribute to a variety of health conditions.
The capsaicin found in hot peppers has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, but it actually is an irritant for humans, producing a sensation of burning in any tissue it comes in contact with.
Interestingly, all nightshades contain nicotine, which is why they can be so addictive. A large body of research shows that nicotine inhibits proper healing. The worst offender is tobacco, which is well known to cause many health problems, including heart, lung, and circulatory problems, as well as cancer.
So, if you have tried practically everything for your joint pain, it is quite possible that you’re nightshade sensitive. Eliminating nightshades is something you do need to try, at least for 30 days, and then systematically reintroduce them back into your diet and observe whether your symptoms return.
Refraining from nightshades can be harder than avoiding gluten! Indeed, there are wide varieties of tomatoes, eggplants, and hot pepper available, and something like 200 varieties of potatoes in existence!
Many restaurant and pre-made foods contain nightshades. Food labels that list generic “spices” almost always includes paprika. Also watch out for spice blends, like curry or grill spice, as they usually include nightshade spices. Store bought gluten-free bread and other baked goods often contain potato starch. It is best to avoid these foods and to make your own where possible.
My nightshades misadventures
For me, nightshades are an autoimmune nightmare! When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, I excluded all nightshade foods as part of my efforts to naturally reduce inflammation and heal my gut.
Several months into my elimination diet, I found myself in a situation when I was forced to sail uncharted dietary waters. Much to my dismay, I took a bite of something that isn’t traditionally spicy, yet turned out to be fiery hot! Within an hour or two, I became well acquainted with the bodily havoc brought on by a nightshade exposure! My back and neck began to hurt, and by the next day, every joint in my body ached! I felt like I was 100 years old! It took about two weeks for my body to return to baseline!
If you are one of those people who don’t seem to have trouble with nightshades, it’s still a good idea not to overdo it. Avoid eating nightshades at every meal and don’t be overly reliant on potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. Sweet potatoes, yams and parsnips are good substitutes for potatoes and replace mashed potato with mashed cauliflower. If you like it spicy, substitute chili pepper with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric or freshly ground peppercorn. Unfortunately, there is no good substitute for tomatoes, so eat in moderation.
For those who are sensitive to nightshades, the best plan is to avoid them completely long term, until you can heal. To live pain-free makes it worth the sacrifice!