What Are Nightshades? The Best Health Secrets
Over the last two years, I have noticed the word “nightshades” is increasingly cropping up in dietary debates.
I even read this...
...in an interview with the personal chef to supermodel Gisele Bundchen and football star Tom Brady:
“[Tom] doesn’t eat nightshades, because they’re not anti-inflammatory. So no tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, or eggplants… I’m very cautious about tomatoes. They cause inflammation.” (source)
You see my point, right?
He lays it right out there like it’s a fact.
...he is a professional chef who feeds one of the most in-shape power couples in the world.
So he must be right…right?
Stick with me here, because…
It’s these exact kind of statements that confuse us all.
With all of the “eat this, don’t eat that” constantly being shouted our way what are we to do?
So today, we’re talking all about nightshades health secrets.
What are they?
What are their secrets?
Should you be eating them?
Do Nightshades Cause Inflammation?
First things first.
Let’s answer the most pressing question - what is a nightshade?
A nightshade is any member of the Solanaceae family of plants (source).
Altogether, there are more than 2,000 plants in this family, and a lot of them aren’t edible.
Did you ever hear the tale that some of our ancestors didn’t eat tomatoes because they thought they were poisonous (source)?
Is it true?
Well, they likely thought this because the tomato was verifiably related to plants like mandrake and belladonna.
But what does that mean?
To be sure, these were used as poisons.
In fact, belladonna was and is known as a deadly nightshade, which understandably tarnishes the reputation of nightshades.
Other poisonous nightshades may even be in our backyards.
Datura, also known as jimsonweed, angel’s trumpet, or devil’s snare (depending on which way their blooms point) is one common one.
But in the end, people of Europe centuries ago thought tomatoes were poisonous nightshades because they really did get sick.
Now, this is important…
They got sick because they were eating the tomatoes off of lead plates.
Duh! Go figure.
Today, we have a new contender in nightshade lore.
Edible nightshades - some very common in our diets - are said to cause inflammation.
The following are members of the nightshade family that may be in your kitchen as we speak:
Aside from these, an herbal supplement or two belong to the nightshade family.
Specifically, ashwagandha (source).
Now we’ve come to the moment of truth.
Is one of nightshades deadly secrets that it does, in fact, cause inflammation?
Personally, I’m leaning towards saying no, absolutely not.
For one, there are no studies drawing any kind of link between the two.
And for what it’s worth, none disproving the belief.
Furthermore, the scientific community largely doesn’t see cause to perform future studies exploring this.
Edible nightshades like tomatoes, and their link to inflammation remains firmly in the “myth” category.
There’s just one problem…
The problem is…
It doesn’t mean that they’re fine for everyone.
Certain people can indeed be sensitive to nightshades. As usual, there are a few areas of discussion you’ll find around this.
One is alkaloids (source).
A lot of flowering plants contain natural alkaloids in the flowers and foliage, as well as the fruit. But when the fruit ripens, the alkaloid levels drop off.
The purpose of the presence of alkaloids is thought to be as a protective agent for the plant in the wild.
As a matter of fact, we extract alkaloids all of the time for drugs. Even in modern times, plants are still essential to medicine.
I’ll explain with examples:
Morphine and nicotine are both alkaloids from plants (poppies and tobacco, respectively).
Alkaloids are even the subject of study for use in easing depression (source).
Also, can be part of cancer treatment (source).
As we can see from the examples above, plant alkaloids can be either healing and/or harmful.
From strychnine to novocaine, plant alkaloids can inspire very different reactions in humans.
But with the common nightshades we eat, the primary alkaloids of concern are solanine, tomatine, and capsaicin.
Capsaicin is the one you’re probably most familiar with; it’s what makes peppers hot.
We also use it in pain relief creams, because guess what?
Despite the fact that it’s hot, it’s very popular as an anti-inflammatory (source).
In short, I don’t agree that capsaicin from nightshades is responsible for general or chronic inflammation. You know, the kind that is the root of many diseases.
But capsaicin isn’t appropriate or beneficial for people with IBS, acid reflux, and the like.
Next is tomatine, from tomatoes (source).
Tomatine is only poisonous in doses that we don’t get from eating tomatoes.
Actually, estimates say that you’d have to eat a bushel of tomato leaves to feel ill from tomatine. The amount we get actually has antimicrobial properties.
And that’s just for starters.
Far from being the culprit of inflammation, I believe tomatine is a friendly alkaloid.
Finally, there’s solanine, which you find in potatoes and eggplant.
Traces of it may also be found in tomatoes.
This is the alkaloid that is most often considered troublesome by those who exercise caution with nightshades.
However, the Food and Drug Administration makes clear that solanine is not easily absorbable by the human body (source).
Our bodies also convert it into a less harmful substance during digestion.
Really, the only potential concern the average healthy person should have surrounds green spots you may find on potatoes.
You know, the parts we cut out!
Am I Sensitive to Alkaloids?
All of that said, some people truly do have a nightshade sensitivity.
To which I ask:
"Which of these health symptoms do you have?"
The symptoms of this sensitivity vary wildly and can include:
And if you’re flat-out allergic...
...then, there’s no question.
Fever and hallucinations are reported with these kinds of allergies.
Chances are, if you aren’t suffering any of the above after some roast potatoes or tomato bruschetta, you’re not sensitive.
Anyway, here’s the thing:
It’s highly unlikely that it’s secretly stoking inflammation in the bodies of nightshade-tolerant people.
If you do suspect some kind of reaction to nightshades, there’s one way to find out...
...an elimination diet.
Cut all foods from the above list of nightshades completely out of your diet for a minimum of six weeks. From there, reintroduce them.
Eat a few servings of nightshades over the course of 48 hours, and stop again to see if the symptoms reemerge.
Monitor your reactions during all periods of abstinence and if a sensitivity is present, it will be pretty cut and dry.
The Best Nightshades Health Secrets
Arbitrarily cutting out nightshades because someone said they “cause inflammation” can actually hurt your diet.
That’s because nightshades are whole foods that, more often, are the best for your health.
Remember, it’s processed, fried, and artificially sweetened foods that cause inflammation.
Common nightshades actually have great health benefits.
Surely, there are a few people out there who will discover they are sensitive to nightshades.
There are still healthy, flavorful foods with similar texture and vitamin content they can enjoy.
Instead of potatoes, eat sweet potatoes - they’re not nightshades.
Squash and cauliflower are also great alternatives to the average potato. Butternut squash fries, anyone (source)?
Is bell pepper essential to your sofrito? Read more sofrito lovin' here.
Swap them for a great sauté containing celery, carrot, or even radishes.
Breaking up with tomatoes can be tough.
How will you ever enjoy pizza or pasta again?
The good news is...
It’s time for you to acquaint yourself with the delicious simplicity of olive oil and garlic.
If you’re willing to get really creative, use squash, beets, pumpkin, and/or zucchini to make a stunning tomato-less tomato sauce (source).
Not your speed?
Don’t forget pesto, hummus, and tofu alfredo (source).
I’m rather fond of eggplant, though many I know eat it only occasionally. If you grew up on eggplant parmesan and can no longer eat nightshades, eat mushrooms instead.
...the chef we met at the beginning of this article, seems to include mushrooms on the nightshade list (source).
I have to tell you; I don’t know why that is.
Mushrooms are not nightshades!
You can enjoy the texture and flavor of a Portobello, as well as slices of squash. Roast them with garlic and olive oil, just like eggplant.
Avoiding Inflammation with Nightshades Health Secrets
Did you consider cutting nightshades because of the inflammation claims?
Listen... inflammation is real.
When your immune system senses a threat, your body can turn against you.
In the long term, this inflammation can increase your risk of cancer, heart disease, and more (source).
And if you’re already dealing with inflammation, you’ll want to fight against it.
The following is a simple guide to doing both: fighting and preventing it.
1. Reduce Stress
I know, everyone makes it sound so easy, right?
Just reduce your stress, and that’s that. But even if your mind and schedule just won’t quit, you can be proactive in taking steps to calm down.
Take for instance...
...a simple daily yoga practice can take you far. The actual postures have numerous benefits, but the breathing helps reduce inflammation as well.
One study finds that yoga’s rhythmic breathing is more effective than other stress-less activities, like reading (source).
2. Get Rid of Bad, Sneaky Fats
We know that things fried in hydrogenated fats are major inflammation triggers. Beyond that, we have to watch out for the unnatural fats that hide in many foods.
Let me give you two examples.
That box of cookies.
A sleeve of crackers.
Even if the packaging doesn’t make it clear, these items have it. Food packagers love cheap vegetable oil, and slip it into everything they can (source).
3. Focus on Omega Balance
I just can’t say it enough: we must pay more attention to our balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
Each and every day, pick your omega-3 source and make sure you get plenty of it.
This is an optimal way to offset those cheap vegetable oils that crop up where they don’t belong.
4. Fruits and Vegetables That Fight Inflammation
Your body and nature both know what can be done about inflammation. All that you need to do is get your willpower on board and put the right foods in your body.
Begin with berries.
Cherries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. All of these are antioxidant powerhouses that help balance the immune system (source).
As far as vegetables go, you can never go wrong with the color green.
They are similarly rich in inflammation-fighting antioxidants, as well as essential minerals that encourage proper function of every process.
5. Sleep and Exercise
When you’re active, be really active.
And when you’re not, commit to the deepest rest you can.
The combination of healthy eating and exercise works for inflammation because it helps you lose weight.
You see, being overweight (even just a little) is the biggest risk factor for inflammation (source).
But that’s not all…
That daily exercise helps us sleep better.
Getting fewer than six hours a night enhances your chances of suffering inflammation (source).
Final word about: Nightshades Health Secrets
I have to say, the no-nightshade thing is one reason I’m skeptical about celebrity diets.
In the end, I think stars like Tom and Gisele are doing well because they’re eating organic whole foods.
Their secrets to a great lifestyle probably have more to do with the fact that they generally eat plants only. And not that they find tomatoes offensive.
Nevertheless, there are those among us who may have a sensitivity to nightshades.
For these people, ordinary vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes can cause digestive troubles, rashes, aches, and more.
Reducing inflammation is a serious concern for everyone.
If you’re not sensitive to the alkaloids in nightshades, foods like tomatoes are perfect for your health.
Despite the fact that some think they cause inflammation, there’s much more evidence that they fight it.
That's it for today...
I need your feedback on this topic. Please.
What leads you to believe that nightshades are or aren’t inflammatory?
If you’re sensitive to nightshades, what are your symptoms?
Do you have any secrets that help you fight inflammation?
Be sure and share your comments below.