What Are Nightshades?
The term nightshades refers to the plant family Solanacaea, which includes popular edible plants like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers as well as the highly addictive drug tobacco. Many plants in the nightshade family are poisonous and some, like belladonna (also called deadly nightshade), can be fatal. The benefits of eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables every day cannot be denied, and for many people, eating food from the nightshade family does not cause major issues. Who doesn’t love fresh crispy bell peppers on a salad, hot French fries or a nice tomato sauce on pasta? Unfortunately for those who are sensitive foods like tomatoes and potatoes can cause a great deal of difficulty.
What Are the Signs of Nightshade Sensitivity?
Symptoms of nightshade sensitivity can range, but may include joint pain, bloating, fatigue, diarrhea, nausea, eczema and migraines. Many people with other food allergies like dairy and gluten find that they experience relief when they also remove foods from the nightshade family from their diet. In general, people dealing with autoimmune diseases or chronic pain like with fibromyalgia often report improvement when they remove nightshades from their diet. The poisonous compounds in nightshades are especially concentrated in leaves and seeds; however, dangerous levels can be found in edible parts of the plants including in unripe raw (green-fleshed) potatoes or those that have been stored too long and have developed eyes. Eating underripe or overripe potatoes has been linked to digestive distress and even death.
Why Are Some People Sensitive to Nightshades?
As with all health issues, there are a number of intersecting factors including current state of health, genetics, exposure to unhealthy foods, alcohol, drugs and other damaging substances, and many other factors. One theory as to why certain people develop more food sensitivities than others is the idea of “leaky gut syndrome,” in which the integrity of the gut lining has been compromised through excess antibiotics, alcohol, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), sugar, food allergies or other inflammatory triggers, allowing for larger particles to fit through the gut lining into the body’s lymph system. These larger molecules, like proteins, can then be mistakenly tagged by the body’s immune system as foreign invaders, stimulating an immune system cavalry charge, the end result of which is often chronic inflammation, pain and potential autoimmune diseases.
Nightshades and Inflammation
In recent research, scientists have found a protein-based tomato allergy in sensitive individuals, showing that there is the potential for those proteins to trigger an autoimmune response or chronic inflammation in a person with a leaky gut. While there is no good research on the overall inflammatory effects of eating nightshades, the web is rife with stories about nightshade sensitivities. One reason for this could be some pro-inflammatory compounds found in most nightshades (and some other foods). In particular, lectins found in nightshade foods are thought to damage the gut lining and promote a state of inflammation. Nightshades also contain glycoalkaloids, which have been linked to leaky gut syndrome and irritable bowel disease (IBD). Dr. Gundry has created a lectin-free food list for those with chronic inflammatory disorders, which includes anti-inflammatory foods like broccoli, range-fed meats, nuts, sweet potatoes, leafy greens and avocados.
Weirdly, while regular potatoes contain some pretty funky compounds, sweet potatoes or yams are in a completely different plant family and do not pose any of the same issues. (Sweet potato fries happen to be my favorite!) Moving away from tomatoes and peppers can be a bit more tricky, especially for those like myself who live in the Southwest, where roasted green chilli is a downright staple. Even if you don’t have a cultural connection to chilli, you may find nightshades cropping up in all sorts of your favorite foods. Try substituting a yummy cashew-based, vegan alfredo sauce for that red sauce on pasta, or experiment with spicing up your cooking with garlic, ginger or black pepper (not a nightshade) instead of red pepper flakes or hot sauce. If you suspect you are sensitive, cut out nightshades for a few weeks and see if you notice any improvement, you might be surprised!