What Are Nightshades?

August 26, 2013 in Categories: , , , by

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349px-Illustration_Solanum_dulcamara0_cleanAt the Ancestral Health Symposium, I was offered some jerky.  I said something like “oh, I’m highly sensitive to nightshades so I probably can’t eat it”.  The man offering it to me said “I don’t think this one has nightshades”.  I said “Really?  Paprika?  Cayenne? Tomatoes?”.  The man said “nope”.  So, I took a piece.  The heat in my mouth instantly told me that I should have scrutinized the ingredients before agreeing.  Red pepper was clearly listed and the burning sensation in my mouth was sending alarm bells throughout my body.  I spat out the bite, but am seeing increased inflammation in the aftermath anyway, including joint pain in my ankles and hips, inflamed skin and acne, and stenosing tenosinovitis in my right hand.  Not convenient while I’m in the last final push to get the book ready for the printer.

This experience got me thinking:  most people don’t know what nightshades are.   And if you are like me and need to avoid nightshades (I actually recover from accidental gluten exposure more rapidly than I recover from accidental nightshade exposure), this can be a problem.  A big problem.  I also realized that even though I wrote a thorough post on why nightshades are eliminated from the autoimmune protocol (food for thought for anyone with unresolved inflammation), I haven’t shared a complete list of nightshade.

So, what are nightshades?

Nightshades are a botanical family of plants, more technically called Solanaceae.  These plants all have certain characteristics in common (like the shape of the flower and how the seed is arranged within the fruit–Wikipedia has a good description).  There are more than two thousand plant species in the nightshade family, the vast majority of which are inedible and many of which are highly poisonous (like deadly nightshade and jimsomweed). Tobacco is a nightshade, and is known to cause heart, lung, and circulatory problems, as well as cancer and other health problems (although, clearly some of this has to do with the other toxins in tobacco products derived from the processing.)

It became very important for me to include a complete list of nightshades in my  book, in part because avoiding nightshades can be harder than avoiding gluten.  So, I put together this list.

The following are all members of the nightshade family (a couple of which you might only ever encounter while on a vacation in the tropics or in supplements):

  • Ashwagandha
  • Bell peppers (a.k.a. sweet peppers)
  • Bush tomato
  • Cape gooseberry (also known as ground cherries—not to be confused with regular cherries)
  • Cocona
  • Eggplant
  • Garden huckleberry (not to be confused with regular huckleberries)
  • Goji berries (a.k.a. wolfberry)
  • Hot peppers (such as chili peppers, jalapenos, habaneros, chili-based spices, red pepper, cayenne)
  • Kutjera
  • Naranjillas
  • Paprika
  • Pepinos
  • Pimentos
  • Potatoes (but not sweet potatoes)
  • Tamarillos
  • Tomatillos
  • Tomatoes

This is a very complete list of edible nightshades, but note that many of those listed include dozens of varieties.  There are many, many varieties of hot peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and even something like 200 varieties of potatoes, for example.  And the number of products including nightshades is enormous.  In fact, if a label lists the vague ingredient “spices”, that almost always includes paprika.  Many spice blends, like curry and steak spice, usually contain nightshades (for more information see Spices on the Autoimmune Protocol).   You might find ingredients such as sambal, shichimi, or tabasco listed and not immediately realize that those are sauces made with hot peppers.  In fact, there are thousands of varieties of hot sauce, all of which contain nightshades.

The reason why nightshades are problematic for many people is due to the glycoalkaloid content (see this post). Overconsumption of these edible species can actually be poisonous to anyone, and it is possible that the low-level toxic properties of nightshade vegetables contribute to a variety of health issues over time.

Speaking of glycoalkaloids, some Websites have erroneously “reported” that some nonnightshade fruits and vegetables contain the glycoalkaloid solanine. See this post for full details, but rest assured that these fruits and vegetables—including  blueberries, huckleberries, okra, apples, cherries, sugar beets, and artichokes—are safe to consume from a glycoalkaloid standpoint.

Comments

Hi Sarah! Thanks for this overview on nightshades. I wonder if I could pick your brain…I recently had an ALCAT test done and I am intolerant to over a dozen foods including tomatoes but NOT bell peppers or white potatoes. Is it possible to have an IgG response to some nightshades and not to others? I definitely notice an IgE response to eggplant – immediately my throat and face become itchy after eating it. Despite the ALCAT results, do you think it would be prudent to still eliminate ALL nightshades for a period of time (21-30 days) and see if that improves my symptoms (mostly eczema and allergies)? I have eliminated tomatoes for the last 30 days (along with gluten, dairy, eggs and random other foods from the ALCAT results) and I have notice no change. Should I be more patient?

Thanks so much for all you do!

Hi Sarah! Thank you so much, as always, for your AMAZING work and passion for what you do! I have a question – I have hashimoto’s and Ashwagandha stimulates the production of T4 (my t4 is in the low normal range and i do not have problems converting t4 to t3; the only antibodies currently present in my body are the TPO AB). I have been exclusively following the AIp since April this year and feel amazing (my TGB AB are in normal territory already!)….this means that I have not been taking any supplements that contain Ashwagandha. Do you know if Ashwagandha could be added to my protocol bc it would be helpful for the thyroid? I know it is a very specific question and you would probably think – well, the sensitivity question you are asking is answered in my post above – but I just wanted to hear your opinion….Thank you so much again for everything!!! You have been my guru in navigating this autoimmune disease since I have discovered your website and you have literally changed my life for the better!!!!

I have a similar question so I thought I’d ask it here to kill 2 birds. In addition to JC’s question, Ashwagandha, from what I’ve read, helps the adrenals as well. I recently purchased a supplement that contains Ashwaganda root. Is that the same as the Ashwaganda you have listed? Thanks so much for your hard work, dedication and documentation of how to improve symptoms!

Yes, when I’ve take it, it was part of an adrenal support supplement. It is usually the root that is used in supplements, which might be why it’s typically better tolerated (fewer glycoalkaloids), but I still recommend caution.

Wow, how fortuitous that you posted this today. After nearly a year AIP, I felt bold and confident in my healing last weekend and ate out twice (!) exposing myself to eggplant, jalapenos and tomatoes. It took 2 days, but this is the quickest, most fiery reaction I’ve had. Body aches for a week now, hips, knees, lower back wrists and finger joints feel arthritic. Muscle weakness and crashing fatigue and puffy hands and feet. Yes, I do indeed feel poisoned.

Eek!!! I’m taking Ashwagandha to support adrenal fatigue…but that is likely not to be helpful for the arthritis and AI issues I have. Guess what I’ll be taking a holiday from?!

Just thought you might be interested in this…
I was taking Ashwagandha for a couple of months to support my adrenals as well and found out that it was part of the nightshade family which I have serious sensitivities to. I found that while taking Ashwagandha I didn’t have the energy and felt depressed and my GI felt off. I pointed this out to my Naturopath and she suggested I take Rhodiola which has been an excellent supplement for my adrenals and is not part of the nightshade family. I have 3 little ones to chase all day and I feel great…even at the end of the day! :)

I had to Google cocona to make sure you didn’t misspell cocoa! ;)

I had never heard of that vegetable before. Whew! What a relief, because I’ve come up with a breakfast blend that I substitute for coffee. I steep roasted chicory root, then add cacao powder, coconut milk and a little vanilla extract. This seems to satisfy my palate without giving me the issues that coffee does…

Thank you so much for this post! My husband is sensitive to nightshades. Your website has been a God send because even though we are Paleo, all the Paleo recipes are FULL of nightshades. I thought I was going to go crazy trying to figure out recipes. You I have made me excited about cooking again!!!!! Keep up the great work!!!!!!!!!

If I’m sensitive to tomatoes (response is joint pain, primarily in my wrists), will I always be sensitive or could I possibly re-introduce them at a later date? Any thoughts – does this have anything to do with leaky gut? I am a celiac.

I recently had someone tell me that spinach is a nightshade and causes inflammation. I know it is not included in the Solanaceae family, and I cannot find spinach listed on any of my trusted AIP lists of foods to avoid, but I have found conflicting information on the internet. Is there anything about spinach that would cause inflammation or exacerbate an autoimmune condition?

Thank you for your list. I’ve had autoimmune problems for years and thought it was merely a probem with gluten. But recently eating nightshades had turned into anaphylaxis for me. (Eeep!) I found your site through another paleo podcast and have been researching voraciously your info. Thank you. By far you have more info here than most other sites and far better organized so I can find just what I need to know. You are a lifesaver.

Thank you for validating my inner suspicion that my numbness (middle and ring finger of dominant hand), which appeared immediately after delivering my fourth baby this spring, IS connected to my adrenal fatigue. I asked multiple medical professionals, and they all scratched their heads and pointed me to someone else. I could tell my body was having a harder go in this pregnancy, and a number of symptoms not-previously-experienced presented themselves within 12h of delivery. I’ve been practicing paleo for some time, and it was an obvious help. But it took a lovely online friend’s recent delve into AIP for her lupus to push me into ‘self-diagnosing’ and take the leap.

I’m in week 2 of AIP and have noticed instant results!!! I won’t bore you with them, lol but suffice it to say I’m getting ME back again. And this is especially interesting as I’ve been on supplements as Rx’s by an ND for last month+. The above listing of Ashwagandha *totally* explains the nasty side effects I had literally immediately. I assumed it was a matter of ‘getting worse before better’.

My question is, will you be going into greater detail in the book about the above?

What an interesting post. I am not a lover of raw tomatoes but do use them as a sauce. However, I love sun dried tomatoes – I don’t suppose their properties change through the sun drying process so make them a better way of having tomatoes?

Drying any food just concentrates the offending substance. So sun-dried tomatoes will be a lot worse than regular tomatoes, just like raisins have higher levels of salicylates than grapes.

I’ve been wondering this for awhile…is potato vodka safe to drink or are the nightshade toxins still present? I’d like to have a drink on the rare occasions I’m in a social situation without paying for it for a week or longer…

Hi, I just recently found your website. Great resource! I am trying to figure out if maca root should be avoided. Do you know if it is a nightshade? I saw somewhere that it was, but don’t see it on a list of things to avoid anywhere. I was taking a tsp. in a smoothie about 3 times a week. I have Hashimoto’s, and just recently started the AIP diet using the Autoimmune Paleo cookbook as my recipe guide.

Thanks so much for your response. Also, I have a question regarding scallions. Are they considered nightshade? I really enjoy the flavor of onions. What can I use as a substitute? Thanks.

After trawling through the internet at 1:23am I found this blog post. Thank you so much for this info, I’m currently lying here with a wet towel on my head running tote bathroom every few hours after having potatoes for dinner, I’ve also noticed increased joint pain and fatigue over the past few weeks. I’d already given up tomatoes, but this article also explains why eggplant was making me so sick! Now it’s time to re-do my whole eating plan! Goodbye potatoes!

I have had an IGe test and none of the above nightshades came up. So would it be safe to say they dont affect me negatively? Or is there another test that can be performed to better determine sensitivity?

Ok, verrryyyy interesting, thank you! So I have hypothyroidism, and eczema caused by nickel, like my belt. I researched it and apparently nightshades have nickel in them. I notice my hand swell up when I eat them and that even though I eliminated gluten a while ago the joint pain in my hand, wrist, and ankles can be unbearable.

Someone just suggested to me that nightshades could be a factor in my very stubborn acne.
I’m already working on a Whole45, so now is the perfect time to give it a try. Is a month a good length of time to cut them out, or can I go shorter or should I go longer?
Most elimination programs seem to average a month, but I have seen different lengths. I’m mostly curious as to how I will know when there’s a difference, as spots that appear on my face take a very long time to heal.

There is bioperine (an extract from black pepper) in my CoQ10 supplement, to increase bio-availability – is it necessary for me to find a new CoQ10 supplement? I have had alopecia for almost 30 years. Thank you

I don’t have a good answer for you. Black pepper definitely causes some people problems, but my suspicion is that it’s the phytoestrogen content, but I’m just guessing because the literature on this is sparse to say the least!

Hi Sarah,

I know this is an older post, but I noticed you answered some else’s question so I figured I give it a try. First, I just want to say I really LOVE your Podcasts! You ladies are awesome and I have been addicted to listening to them for the last three days! I really appreciate that you have a strong scientific background and can back-up your comments with research. You explain science in an easy to understand way.
Thank you!

Okay so my question is I’m wondering why I have trouble digesting cucumbers if they aren’t nightshades. I’m still not sure how sensitive I am to nightshades because I have mainly noticed that I only have an issue with raw bell peppers red/green. If they are cooked I only burb them up a little (sorry for the visual). It still takes longer to process those foods I eat with them though. I notice that I feel sick to my stomach if I workout 2 hours after eating cooked peppers. So does this sound like nightshade sensitivity? I know potatoes make me a little bloated, but I figured it was just all that starch. I haven’t noticed much with tomatoes, but I only eat a few slices on salad raw and I’m not sure about cooked.

Back to my first question, can you explain the cucumber issue and based on my other explanation should I be avoiding nightshades. Mostly I don’t want to give up tomatoes or spices. Everything else I won’t miss. It’s hard to tell if the spices make me bloated cause I just started using them more in my cooking since eating Paleo for this last month.

Thanks for all your wonderful advice!

Well, you could just be sensitive to cucumbers. They are one of the worst foods for stimulating gas-production (due to a compound called cucurbitacin) and are known to be a common irritator for people with diverticular disease. When they’re grown in depleted soil, cucurbitacin in the cucumber is increased, so you might be able to get some in season at a local Farmer’s Market and be fine with them.

As for nightshades, yes, that does sound like a sensitivity, but it is totally possible to be sensitive to one family of nightshade plants (like just peppers or just tomatoes) and be fine with others. The easiest way to tell is an elimination diet, here you eliminate all nightshades for a few weeks and then add them back in one at a time every few days.

“…the shape of the flower and how the seed is arranged within the fruit–Wikipedia has a good description).”

Wikipedia is not published work and cannot be considered a reliable source. I would like to order your book but before I do, can you tell me if the information is backed up with actual credible sources (Ie., not information gathered from random internet sites)? Sorry, since I can’t preview your book, I just want to make sure I know what I”m getting. Thank you!!!

actually, never mind. I found the answer to your question in the video. I am ordering your book from Amazon right now. many thanks!!

I am having difficulties tonight. The only thing that I can think of that was out of order, was a heavy dose of allspice in a chicken recipe that I made. Looked it up and sure enough allspice is a form of pimento – a nightshade. Who knew?

I just recently found your website and am thrilled with the amount of information you have on autoimmunity and the paleo approach. I have Crohn’s disease and have tried SCD in the past and am currently on Paleo but just starting the AIP. I never did see any affect from SCD even though I was on it for almost 2 years, but I was also over exercising at the time which may also have played a role in my not getting any better.

As far as nightshades, I’ve been reading the benefits of resistant starch on creating butyrate which has anti-inflammatory effects and can help Crohn’s and also it’s role in promoting the growth of favorable gut bacteria. Most places I’ve read about is suggest the easiest way to get the most resistant starch is to take potato starch. Obviously potatoes are nightshades and so they aren’t on the AIP, but is consuming just the potato starch in any way OK for AIP or would you suggest doing without it until you start reintroducing foods?

Also, I know this isn’t concerning nightshades, but do you know of the role of how our female hormones play a role in our autoimmune disease? I was never able to get into remission for very long before I got pregnant, then when I got pregnant I flared horribly, but I was able to get it under control after IV steroids and sulfasalazine. Somehow I remained in remission on Sulfasalazine only (along with a Paleo diet), and didn’t have any issues until I had my first postpartum period. Since then I’ve been in a horrible flare and am currently on steroids. I’m wondering how our hormones affect our autoimmune disease and if there is anything we can do to try and counteract that. Any ideas? I’ll have to check out your book as well, maybe you have info there. Thanks.

I do not recommend potato starch with autoimmune disease. Lots of starchy tubers have resistant starch, as do green bananas and plantains. I also don’t like the idea of supplementing with the idea of targeting one specific genus of bacteria in the gut, because even good bacteria can overgrow. Instead, I recommend a wide variety of vegetables to feed a wide variety of friendly gut bacteria who will then produce a wide variety of beneficial substances (like other short-chain fatty acids, neurotransmitters, anti-inflammatory cytokines…).

Sex hormones are quite tightly linked with the immune system, and flares during pregnancy, upon the birth of the baby, and/or when the baby weans are all very common. I do talk about it in my book.

How long should someone wait before introducing nightshades back in to their diet and for that matter any food? Thanks for letting us pick your brains!!! Very grateful for all you do for everyone for all autoimmune people!!

Hi, I’ve always found the term paleo amusing as I can’t imagine many followers going into their butchers and asking for woolly mammoth steaks or whole ibis for roasting. Perhaps it should be the meso or mesolithic diet. Silly pedantry aside (sorry!) I wanted to say a massive thanks for this article as I think I have pinpointed my problem. I have eliminated dairy and gluten and felt the benefits. I had a lush chilli last night, a healthy not gluttonous portion I might add, replete with bell and chilli peppers, fresh and puree tomato and eggplant. Despite only one glass of vino with it and a good sleep I have woken up feeling stiff and achey, bloated and lethargic. Chillis and curries with these ingredients are a staple of mine, I thought, healthy comfort food. Apparently not. I am going to eliminate them and have a look at your other blogs now. When I get paid I will buy your book :-)

Hey Sarah, I have a few questions about the autoimmune condition involving Hidradenitis. I have had h.s for 4-5 years now and I seam to always have flare ups in one spot or the other I can’t find anything that will help ive Tryed so much. Anyway, I was hoping you could help. Besides my questions I am looking for any advice on how to manage h.s. It would be appreciated. My first question is should I avoid sugar? I have been doing my best too already. Second when it comes to autoimmune protocol should you not eat nuts and seed? Or just nuts? And if u can’t eat seeds does that include corn? .. I have started my auto immune diet and the hardest part for me is no bread or nuts. I love peanut butter. And was wondering if there were any substitutes for bread or peanut butter. I have been using corn tortillas with no wheat instead of bread.

Thank you so much for your help.

I love your book, The Paleo Approach, and have had the cookbook pre-ordered for some time. I wanted to ask if your cook book will be ALL AIP friendly? I hope so! I have so many Paleo cookbooks already but most seem to include a lot of nightshades. Would LOVE to get one without!!

My wife left this up on the computer so I took the time to read it. My father and his siblings have been on a nightshade free diet for almost 20 years. Potatoes seem to be the really sensitive item for them. They discovered a long time ago that MODIFIED FOOD STARCH is potato starch so any food with that listed in ingredients is off limits.

So to recap, modified food starch is made from potatoes and should be avoided.

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