Nightshades are a class of foods that have many health benefits, but for some, can also be problematic. These foods are found in many common recipes, so unless you’re strictly avoiding nightshades, chances are you’re eating them.
How do you know what nightshades are, or if you’re sensitive to them? We’ll cover the pros and cons, as well as symptoms of sensitivity and how to replace them in your diet if you need to eliminate one or more.
What are Nightshades?
Nightshades are a class of foods that include common vegetables like eggplant, white potatoes, bell peppers, okra, and tomatoes. It also includes certain herbs and spices, like ashwagandha, paprika, chili pepper, cayenne pepper, and red pepper flakes.
What do all of these foods and spices have in common? They are a member of the Solanaceae family, and for some, can have inflammatory properties. They have in common that they are the edible parts taken from flowering plants.
Not all nightshades are edible, and with more than 2,000 plants in the nightshade family, most of them are actually not used as food. In fact, some, like belladonna, are actually poisonous.
On their own, however, nightshades that are eaten as food have many health benefits in their own right. But much like no one diet can work for everyone, so certain foods which are healthful for some might cause unpleasant symptoms in others.
Complete List of Nightshade Foods
If you’re wondering whether something is a nightshade or not, consult this list of all the known edible nightshades:
- Cape gooseberries
- Cayenne pepper
- Chili pepper or powder
- Garden huckleberries
- Goji berries
- Peppers, bell
- Peppers, chili
- Peppers, jalapeno
- Peppers, sweet
- Potatoes, white
- Red pepper flakes
Health Benefits of Nightshades
Nightshade foods are rich in nutrients like vitamin C, antioxidants, minerals, and B vitamins, among others.
The herb Ashwagandha is renowned for its stress-relieving benefits and for helping to support the adrenal glands and overall body in times of physical or mental stress.
Cayenne pepper has numerous anti-inflammatory health benefits, too, that range from addressing arthritis pain to reducing the risk of heart disease.
Tomatoes are a potent source of vitamins C and A, and are well-known for containing lycopene, an antioxidant that is associated with reduced chances of developing chronic health problems.
Bell peppers are also a rich source of vitamin C and are known to improve iron absorption from certain foods.
Eggplant is a high fiber food that also has a small amount of protein and is a staple in vegetarian diets.
White potatoes contain higher amounts of potassium and manganese and are a good source of starch.
So how can foods with such proven health benefits be bad for some people?
Problems with Nightshades
Even though nightshade foods have many proven health benefits and contain plenty of vitamins and minerals, they are still problems for some.
Specifically, nightshades contain certain components, known as alkaloids, which are rich in nitrogen and in some people, can break down and cause inflammatory symptoms, worsening conditions like arthritis, digestion, or intestinal disorders.
Thanks to the rising popularity of the AIP diet, which stands for autoimmune protocol, there is more awareness than ever about the potential for nightshades to be problem-causing.
One of the biggest issues associated with nightshade consumption is leaky gut, and condition where the small intestine’s barrier function is compromised and undigested food particles and other substances enter the bloodstream.
This is like giving a backstage pass to everyone, when in reality, it would be chaos if that happened. The barrier function works to ensure that the digestive system, bloodstream, and overall body are protected from invaders.
When it doesn’t work as it should, the body is at risk for inflammatory conditions and a rogue immune system which could lead to autoimmune disease and chronic disorders.
Nightshades can also be associated with allergies and can lead to reactions like itching, swelling, difficulty breathing, hives, and even anaphylaxis.
Tomatoes, in particular, seem to be responsible for these types of reactions. While rare in the general population, they’re quite serious for those who do have them.
9 Symptoms of Nightshade Sensitivity: Why You Might Need to Avoid Them
How do you know if you’re sensitive to nightshades? If you have one or more of the symptoms on this list, it might be worth eliminating nightshades from your diet for a time. Keep in mind that not everyone is sensitive to all nightshades.
For example, some may need to avoid tomatoes and peppers, but can eat potatoes. Others might not be able to handle potatoes, but are fine with all of the peppers and pepper spices.
The best way to determine your own level of sensitivity is to eliminate all of them and add one type back every three days, taking note of any symptoms that return or flare.
The top symptoms associated with nightshade sensitivity include:
- Heartburn or acid reflux
- Swelling in joints or pain in joints
- Irritable bowels
- Nerve problems
- Leaky gut
- Any type of autoimmune or chronic disorder/disease
If you ever eat a nightshade and experience a rash, an itchy mouth, trouble breathing, or anything that seems out of the norm, it’s important to seek emergency medical care right away as this could the sign of a serious allergic reaction.
You can develop an allergy even if you’ve eaten a food for many years; it doesn’t only happen on the first or second encounter.
If you do discover a nightshade sensitivity, avoiding them for one to six months is usually the minimum amount of time needed. For some, you may not be able to add them back for months or years, depending on how your health is.
Others may be able to eat them in moderation after a month. At the same time, you might not be sensitive to them now, but could develop a sensitivity at some future time in your life.
Nightshades & Inflammatory Bowel Disease
While nightshade sensitivity can happen to anyone, there are certain categories of health issues that warrant stricter avoidance for a longer amount of time. Inflammatory bowel disease, also known as IBD, doesn’t pair well with nightshade vegetables.
Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC) are two types of IBD that tend to have strong and poor reactions to nightshade foods.
These conditions are associated with leaky gut and a weakened barrier function, as well as a weaker mucosal lining of the digestive tract.
Research indicates that the alkaloids in nightshade vegetables can worsen these barrier problems and lead to more symptoms and complications of irritable bowel disorders, especially those in white potatoes, tomatoes, and chili and cayenne peppers.
Nightshades & Autoimmunity
All forms of autoimmune disease are worsened by the presence of leaky gut. Even if the autoimmune disorder doesn’t involve the gut directly, as with IBD, the immune system is still regulated by the microbiome — the microbial balance in the small and large intestines.
If you have autoimmune disease or are at risk for it, limiting or eliminating nightshades for a time could help you reduce inflammation and restore a gut from barrier function problems.
Leaky gut and nightshades could be especially problematic in certain autoimmune diseases like Celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
Nightshades & Arthritis
While research is more limited, there is speculation that nightshades worsen autoimmune arthritis or other joint pain conditions because they lead to increases in calcium deposits that worsen joint flexibility and junctions, as well as calcium deposits in soft tissues.
If this theory holds true with further research, it would mean that nightshades in people who are sensitive could also worsen conditions like heart disease, or increase the risk of developing it, thanks to the calcium deposits and increased inflammation.
How to Replace Nightshades in Your Diet
If you want to remove nightshades from your diet, it can feel like a sudden loss of normal recipes. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to replace them in your diet without having to think too hard.
Use the following list of swaps for an easy nightshade-free experience.
- Replace white potatoes with sweet potatoes, turnips, or parsnips.
- Replace bell peppers with zucchini, carrots, or yellow squash.
- Replace tomatoes with beets, pumpkin, or other foods from the squash family.
- Replace eggplant with portobello mushroom caps or zucchini.
- Replace chili pepper and cayenne pepper with black or white pepper (as confusing as it is, these two are not from the nightshade family).
Following an Elimination Diet: How To Steps
If you decide that you want to try an elimination diet with nightshades, just use the following steps to guide you.
- Use a notebook or smartphone note-taking app. You’ll need to record the date you start, the foods you’re quitting, and a general daily record of what you are eating. This will allow you to keep tabs on other foods besides nightshades which might also be adding to your dietary symptoms.
- Eliminate all nightshades for at least 30 days.
- After 30 days, choose one nightshade to add back into your diet. Eat one small portion of it and be sure to record how much and when you ate it. For the next three days especially, pay close attention to your symptoms, including digestion, headaches, joint pain, muscle pain, bloating, gas, intestinal pain, diarrhea, etc.
- Three days later, try eating the food again. Note reactions and symptoms again. If after eating the food twice you have experienced no unpleasant symptoms or signs of flares, then this food is probably not one you’re sensitive to.
- Repeat the process of challenging nightshade foods back into your diet.
- If you encounter one or more that lead to symptoms of sensitivity, digestive upset, or anything else that makes you feel unwell, continue to avoid this food for another three to six months before attempting to challenge it back in to your diet.
- Once you have a list of the nightshade foods you’re sensitive to, continue avoiding these for at least three to six months, but know that if you challenge them a second time and still react, you may need to avoid this food long-term or forever.
Recipes That Are Nightshade Free
If you’re overwhelmed at how to eliminate nightshades from your diet but still have a clue how to cook or eat, the good news is that numerous websites and cookbooks now exist with complete eating plans for the AIP diet, which happens to be completely nightshade free.
The following are helpful resources for following a diet without nightshades:
- 50+ Essential Paleo Autoimmune Recipes from Eat Drink Paleo
- Recipe Archive from Autoimmune Wellness, the internet’s best resource for all things AIP
- 30 of the Best AIP Recipes on the Internet from Kettle & Fire
- 23 Autoimmune Paleo Recipes from PaleoHacks
- 39 Amazing Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) Friendly Recipes from Primal Palate
Nightshades are foods that contain many health benefits, but for some, produce more unpleasant and problematic symptoms than they do good. The main way to know if you’re sensitive to nightshades is to take stock of your current health conditions and whether or not you have any common symptoms.
If you do, try an elimination plan to assess your sensitivity and create a wellness plan that works for you.
If addressing food sensitivity on your own becomes too stressful, reach out to a nutritionist or health professional who is experienced with nightshades and food sensitivity and obtain guidance in crafting a dietary protocol that works for your health needs.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.