What is a Nightshade?

Nightshade is a family of foods that is scientifically called Solanaceae.  You know them as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers (though there are up to 2300 plants in the family, these are most common). Nightshades are not commonly known by foodies, outside of the nutritional and herbal community. In fact, if you ask someone at a restaurant or market if their product contains nightshades, they often think you've said nitrates. Or, have no idea what you're talking about.

Nightshades are a family of foods that I avoid and encourage my clients to avoid. Here's why:

Nightshades are an inflammatory food that are irritating to those with a sensitive gut or autoimmune condition

You will not find this written in every nutrition manual, because they are also known to be health supportive. It gets confusing... So, here's my stance for those sufering from poor gut and immune health.

Tomatoes, especially in large doses, can be weakening to the body's systems (Pitchford, 545). In fact, they can poison us in large enough doses. Tomatoes and potatoes are often suggested to be avoided to those with arthritis because they "contribute directly to inflammation (Black, 28)." And, it has been noted that "one in every five people with rheumatoid arthritis sensitive to nightshades (Challem, 86)."

Yet, they remain good-for-us vegetables in the eyes of many.

Most early Europeans thought nightshades to be poisonous before seeing them eaten on our continent centuries ago. In fact, one of the more well known actively poisonous plants aptly called Deadly Nightshade, or Belladonna, was used as an anesthetic, taken to dilate eyes (making women appear more beautiful, hence the name) or as poison. Most of the nightshade family is less than friendly to the body.

Nonetheless, we munch on our salsa, eat the heck out of marinara sauce and sauté most dishes abundantly with peppers. Not to mention, the nearly prerequisite of paprika (bell peppers), cayenne and red pepper flakes in sausages, spice blends (especially chilis and curries) and many processed foods. These darn nightshades are everywhere! So, they can be really hard to avoid, if you are not cooking all of your own meals.

To dissect and give my own words to the research of Sarah Byllantyne, the main reasons to avoid nightshades when you have an autoimmune condition, weak gut or diminished immunity are as follows:

  • They lead to gut permeability. Most modern humans have leaky gut, or gut permeability. This means the lining of the gut is compromised and the nutrients are lost, to some extent, within the body. Particulates float, you aren't nourished, and you're not getting the goods out of your food.

  • They have susceptibility which "stimulates and exaggerates an immune response (Byllantyne)." If you already deal with autoimmunity in your body, or are fighting to keep it at bay, the last thing you want is to aggravate that. Autoimmunity comes from an over-stimulated immune system which then over-responds and attacks healthy cells of the body. Let's not exaggerate it further.

  • They are irritating, in general, and specifically affect the mucous membranes. Think about why peppers are hot, how it felt if you rubbed your eye after touching a pepper, or what it feel like to have tobacco in your lip (yes, tobacco is a nightshade, too!). That tingly sensation comes from capsaicin. You may have heard that capsaicin is good for you, and known as anti-inflammatory, which is documented many times over. However, in my opinion, the bad outweighs the good when you already have sensitivities in the gut and gut lining (mucous layer of the digestive tract).

So, why am I telling you all of this? Because it's time to take note. I want you to notice how often you eat, and possibly react to, nightshades.

If you are eating them regularly and cannot tell how they fare for you, the best thing to do is take them out of your diet for 1-3 weeks and see what happens. If you live in Texas, where I grew up, or New Mexico or Arizona, it'll be harder than it sounds. In fact, even in Boulder, Colorado, it's the hardest thing to date that I have to navigate when eating out.

But, my health is worth the effort, and so is yours!

Check out these common nightshades that you likely encounter on a daily basis:

  • Ashwagandha (an herb that supports adrenal health)

  • Bell Peppers

  • Eggplant

  • Goji Berries (also known as Wolfberries, a superfood)

  • Hot Peppers (anaheim, cayenne, chilis, jalapeño, etc including all ground or dried spices)*

  • Paprika and Pimentos (both red bell peppers)

  • Potatoes (yams and sweet potatoes are not nightshades)

  • Tomatillos

  • Tomatoes
    *Peppercorns including Black Pepper, Szechuan Pepper, White Pepper are not nightshades

Though the name "nightshade" has unknown etymology, wikipedia has some thoughts. I think of the common ones as a family that typically grows from vines, and has a layer of seeds inside. Think about the center of the ones you know, with the exception of the potato, and they all have the same look (jalapeño, goji, bell, tomato). Do some perusing in your spice cabinet and ingredient lists and see what all you notice with nightshades. Basically anything with red specks or flecks is a winner.

Everyday items with nightshades include:

  • Chili Spice Blends

  • Curry Spice Blends

  • Hot Dogs

  • Yellow Mustard (has paprika)

  • Ketchup (don't forget the obvious)

  • Salad Dressings

Anything that lists non-specific "spices" in it's ingredient list almost always has nightshades (I investigate individual items with companies all the time)!

Check out the website for Applegate Meats, however, as they actually tell you what every spice is when "spices" is listed on the paper label. Well done, Applegate, for making my life easier!

Does this solve any suspicions you were having? Or play a part in the rebuilding of your gut health? Let me know in the comments below, and be sure to keep me posted on your exploration and uncovering!

xo, B

Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 2002. Print. Challem, Jack. The Inflammation Syndrome: Your Nutrition Plan for Great Health, Weight Loss, and Pain-free Living. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Print. Black, Jessica K. The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book. CA: Hunter House, 2006. Print.