Most individuals have never heard the term “nightshades,” much less make the connection to a food group that ignites pain and inflammation.
Recent research has shown that between 70 and 90% of people who ache and hurt – regardless of their diagnostic “label” – have sensitivity to nightshades.
Before I share several healthy eating tips with you – let me delve into what exactly nightshades are.
And I don’t mean the kind you cover your window with to take a nap in the afternoon.
Let’s talk Nightshades
Nightshades are a diverse group of foods, herbs, shrubs, and trees that have fascinated scientists, doctors and nutritionists for centuries.
In simple terms, nightshade plants release chemicals that protect the plant from being eaten by insects.
“Nightshade” is actually the common name used to describe over 92 varieties and 2,800 species of plants, many with very different properties and constituents.
All of the plants, however, belong to a scientific order called Polemoniales, and to a scientific family or botanical group called Solanaceae.
To give you an idea of the diversity associated with this group of plants, consider the fact that tobacco, morning glory, potato, and tomato are all classified as nightshades.
Muscle Stiffness and Nightshades
An enzyme present in our bodies called Cholinesterase originates in the brain where it is responsible for flexibility of muscle movement.
Solanine – which is present in nightshades – is a powerful inhibitor of cholinesterase.
In other words, its presence can interfere with muscle function – the cause of stiffness experienced after consuming nightshade foods.
Nightshades also contain a substance called calcitrol, which is a type of vitamin D.
Calcitrol is also a powerful hormone that, if consumed in large quantities, may cause calcium levels in your blood to rise.
The theory behind this effect is that calcium accumulates in the joints causing bone tissue to grow and replace cartilage.
Fibro Flare Ups and Nightshades
Most plants in the nightshade family are considered weeds, many of which have poisonous berries, but many common fruits and vegetables are actually part of this family as well.
The alkaloids in these common fruits and vegetables are harmless for the most part, but they are sometimes referred to as being “pro-inflammatory.”
This refers to an eliciting of chronic, low levels of inflammation that may encourage an emergence of symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory disease processes such as fibromyalgia.
Health problems from nightshade foods may only occur in individuals who are especially sensitive to these alkaloid substances.
Research has proven that when an inflammatory condition pre-exists, consuming nightshades is like adding “fuel to the fire”.
That said – there is no scientific evidence that for those not afflicted with inflammation that nightshades will cause it.
The bottom line – individuals who suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease, inflammatory disease or even acne can possibly see improvements in their condition if they reduce or eliminate these foods from their diet.
If you are sensitive to alkaloids it is helpful to familiarize yourself with the most common fruits, vegetables and other products that belong to the nightshade family.
Here’s a quick snapshot of some of the most common ones:
The most common nightshade in the North and South American diets is tomatoes.
They are usually consumed raw, in juices, in a sauce over pasta, in lasagnas, pizzas and chilis, or as a salsa to accompany a meal.
Another common nightshade on your plate is potatoes, whether it is boiled, baked or mashed.
French fries and potato chips also constitute important sources of potatoes in the diet.
Fortunately, not all potatoes are created equal – you can still enjoy Yams and Sweet Potatoes.
Eggplants also belong to the nightshade plant family.
Eggplants are found in the dip babaganoush, in ratatouille, eggplant parmesan or are served as a vegetable, whether grilled or as a pizza topping.
All varieties of peppers, including the bell pepper, Italian pepper and chili peppers (with the exception of black pepper) are part of the nightshade family.
This also includes hot peppers, cayenne, paprika as well as Tabasco sauce. Many spicy dishes contain some sort of pepper.
Goji berries are increasingly popular because of their high antioxidant content. However, this fruit is part of the nightshade family of plants.
Other berries, such as ashwagandha, an herb used in Ayurvedic medicine, Cape gooseberries, but not normal gooseberries, ground cherries and garden huckleberries, but not blueberries, are also considered nightshades.
Although not directly in the nightshade family, some other foods to watch out for that contain solanine are:
Substances to Avoid
If you believe that you have a sensitivity to the above chemicals found in certain food products and drugs, then you may wish to limit or avoid some of the following:
- Homeopathic remedies containing Belladonna (known as deadly nightshade).
- Prescription and over-the-counter medications containing potato starch as a filler (especially prevalent in sleeping and muscle relaxing medications).
- Edible flowers: petunia, chalice vine, day jasmine, angel and devil’s trumpets.
- Atropine and Scopolamine, used for motion sickness and in sleeping pills.
- Topical medications for pain and inflammation containing capsicum (in cayenne pepper).
- Nicotine is one of the most famous of the one-ring type alkaloids and is found in the highest concentrations in tobacco.
Even though this brief list appears to be straightforward and easy to follow, individuals on a nightshade-free diet, also need to avoid these foods in modified forms.
For example, potatoes are present in potato starch, otherwise known as modified food starch, a common ingredient in many processed foods and a common filler in medications and vitamin supplements.
Some Practical Tips
1. Joint or Nervous System Problems?
First, if you are an individual with existing joint problems caused by your fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or gout, a temporary 2-3 week elimination of nightshade foods from your meal plan may be a worthwhile step to determine if these foods could be contributing to your joint and pain problems.
This same recommendation would apply to individuals with existing nervous system problems, particularly nerve-muscle related problems.
2. Reduce Alkaloid Intake
Second, even if you are an individual with no existing health problems that are potentially related to nightshade intake, you may want to take precautions to avoid excessive intake of alkaloids from these foods.
Steaming, boiling and baking all help reduce the alkaloid content of nightshades.
However, alkaloids are only reduced by about 40-50% from cooking.
For non-sensitive individuals, the cooking of nightshade foods will often be sufficient to make the alkaloid risk from nightshade intake insignificant.
On the other hand – for sensitive individuals – the remaining alkaloid concentration may be enough to cause problems.
Handling of potatoes is especially important in this regard, and the following practices will help you avoid excessive intake of potato alkaloids:
- Store your potatoes for 1-3 weeks only in a dark cupboard, preferably in a cool and dry part of the house such as a basement (if your basement is dry). It’s important not to keep potatoes in a lighted area; the exposure to light will increase alkaloid formation.
- Wash all potatoes before cooking so you’ll be better able to spot the green areas, if any.
- Thoroughly cut out all green areas, especially green areas on the peel before cooking. After cooking, if the potato tastes bitter, avoid eating it.
- Do not purchase and eat potatoes that have been waxed. Waxes do not help reduce greening and can increase potato decay by cutting down on gas exchange in and out of the potato.
Avoiding or limiting your consumption of nightshade foods in your diet is a personal choice.
You may find that reducing your intake of certain nightshade foods works best for your body.
Others may find a dramatic improvement in their health by eliminating most nightshade foods from their diet.
What is important is that you experiment with subtle dietary changes over time to see what works best for your particular condition.
One final tip to consider is documenting any dietary changes so that you have a written record to fall back on when comparing what is and isn’t working.
Read more posts like this in our Fibromyalgia Diet Category.
Should you like to learn more about how you can benefit from a healthier lifestyle, then please check out: Your Fibromyalgia Diet.