What are nightshades?
Nightshades are a family of vegetables known as Solanaceae. This nightshade family contains over ninety genera with more than two thousand species. Most of the plants under this category are inedible and poisonous. Some familiar plants that are part of this family include tobacco, petunias and belladonna. In terms of more common foods, it includes eggplant, tomato, potato and all kinds of pepper (bell, cayenne, chili, etc – only excluding white and black pepper). Nightshades all contain alkaloids – organic compounds consisting mainly of nitrogen atoms. Alkaloids are present in many plants and act to protect the plant from insects (“natural pesticide”). These alkaloids have been shown to have physiological effects on the human body. Most nightshade foods that we consume contain ‘steroid alkaloids’.
Why are they harmful?
Although there is limited research, anecdotal evidence suggests that nightshades can be harmful in a number of ways.
Steroid alkaloids are thought to be inflammation-inducing in the joints. Studies have shown improvements in inflammation problems once nightshades have been removed from the diet.
It is also thought that these steroid alkaloids inhibit cholinesterase, an enzyme that is responsible for nerve impulse conduction. The absence or lesser effect of this enzyme may result in muscle spasms, twitching and convulsions.
Nightshades are high in lectins, a natural pesticide in plants. Lectins can irritate the lining of the small intestine, potentially leading to leaky gut syndrome. This occurs because lectins (among other substances) can create gaps between the cells of the lining, allowing undigested food particles to enter the bloodstream. This syndrome can cause a wide range of autoimmune disorders.
Who should avoid nightshades?
Nightshades may be particularly aggravating to people who are suffering from arthritis, gout, osteoporosis, systemic inflammation issues and autoimmune diseases.
How to eat nightshades?
If you are worried about nightshade sensitivity, there are ways to consume them that are easier on your body. Try cooking them, rather than eating them raw, as cooking can decrease alkaloid content. It is best to eat a wide range of different foods rather than eating the same items repeatedly. It is also wise to eat nightshades in moderation.
How do you know if you are intolerant to nightshades?
A good way to find out if you are sensitive to nightshades is to keep a food journal and track your symptoms in relation to what foods you are consuming. If you see a positive correlation between eating certain foods and experiencing unpleasant symptoms, then embark on an elimination diet. All nightshades should be removed from the diet for 4-6 weeks. If the symptoms persist, it is most likely due to another factor. If they go away and come back when you reintroduce the nightshades, then you have most likely found the culprit and can eliminate them from your diet. You can also talk to your healthcare practitioner about taking a food sensitivity test.