Nightshades are plant-based vegetables that belong to the Solanaceae family. They are popularly used in many different types of cuisines; however, many people avoid them due to concerns about their potential health risks. We are going to explore the different types of nightshade vegetables and discuss their benefits and drawbacks. In addition, we will take a closer look at the reasons some people choose to follow a nightshade-free diet, including some possible health conditions that may benefit. Whether you are a fan of nightshades or thinking about going nightshade-free, we hope this article will provide you with the essential information to make an informed decision about including (or excluding) these vegetables in your diet.
Nightshades are a family of plants that includes some very common vegetables, such as:
- Potatoes (But not sweet potatoes)
- Peppers (chili peppers, jalapenos, habaneros, red pepper, cayenne etc.)
- Ground cherries
- Bell peppers
While this is not a comprehensive list, it does include some of the most used nightshades. These veggies are found in almost every type of cuisine, especially in the form of spices.
Nightshades have been cultivated for centuries and used for a wide variety of culinary and medicinal purposes. Despite their widespread use, there has been some concerns about whether or not nightshades are poisonous. This belief is likely due to the fact that some nightshade species contain alkaloids (Atropine and Scopolamine), which are naturally occurring chemicals that are toxic at high doses.
The most famous of the nightshades is Atropa Belladonna, which means “Beautiful Lady” in Italian. As you may have guessed based on its nickname, in the 16th century Belladonna was consumed by women as a cosmetic. The result was rosy cheeks and enlarged pupils - an ancient form of blush.
Though it has served as a beauty product, you may better know the term nightshade as a common poison.
Throughout history it has played a pivotal role in toppling kingdoms and creating theatrical endings to Shakespearean plays. Macbeth, Emperor Augustus of Rome, and Emperor Claudius are counted among the royalty killed with this deadly nightshade. Any Game of Thrones fans? This has Lanister written all over it!
Nightshades aren’t all bad. You may not know it, but the active chemicals in nightshades, Atropine and Scopolamine, are now commonly used for a range of medicinal purposes. They are likely best known (by physicians) for their uses at the eye doctor and during surgery.
Atropine, for example, is commonly used to treat a variety of conditions, including bradycardia (a slow heart rate) and eye disorders such as uveitis and iritis. It counteracts the effects of acetylcholine in the body to help increase heart rate and dilate the pupils of the eyes. Nightshades are used in the eyedrops at your optometrist – they are the reason you get to wear those sweet sunglasses after an eye exam.
Scopolamine on the other hand is primarily used to prevent nausea and vomiting associated with sickness, anesthesia, and other medications. The effects on motion sickness are very similar to Dramamine. In fact, you may have seen Scopolamine used as a patch to counteract motion sickness.
Despite their benefits, both atropine and scopolamine can have significant side effects, specifically when consumed in high doses or for extended periods of time. These can include dry mouth, constipation, blurred vision, confusion, hallucination, and delirium.
As with any medication, it is important to use these drugs only as directed by a healthcare provider. If you are considering using medications associated with either of these chemicals sourced from nightshades, consult your primary care physician.
Nightshades and health
While you may have just heard of the term nightshade, almost everyone has heard of the vegetables listed above. If you pay attention, they can be found in almost every dish we eat. In fact, many people consume nightshades without knowing. One of the main reasons people choose to go nightshade free is because of the presence of alkaloids. While these can be harmful if ingested in high doses, most nightshade vegetables contain a relatively low amount and are considered safe for consumption in normal quantities. However, some people may be sensitive to even small amounts.
The most reported symptoms of sensitivity include joint pain, digestive issues, and skin rashes.
The negative effects of alkaloids can vary, but the most reported symptoms of sensitivity include joint pain, digestive issues, and skin rashes. Some people have found that nightshades may exacerbate conditions like arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease; however, scientific evidence for these claims is limited. Diet has such a deep impact on health. We would recommend keeping a record of the foods you believe may be causing any of these symptoms. We wrote an article that includes an easy how-to guide to food journaling.
While many people enjoy these veggies as a part of a healthy diet, others choose to avoid them due to concerns about their effects on health. Here are some of the benefits of a nightshade-free diet and some alternative foods to consider:
- Reduced Inflammation: Some people have noticed that nightshade vegetables can exacerbate inflammation in the body. This can negatively affect conditions such as arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. Eliminating nightshades from the diet may reduce inflammation and naturally improve these symptoms.
- Improved Digestion: This is likely the most common reason for choosing to eliminate nightshades. Difficulty in digesting these foods, many of which are highly acidic, can lead to bloating, acid reflux, gas, and diarrhea. These symptoms can potentially be alleviated by eliminating the source.
- Better Skin Health: The solanine found in nightshades is an alkaloid that can cause skin irritation. Eliminating nightshades from the diet may help to improve skin health.
No matter the reason you are considering a nightshade free diet, it is important to consult your doctor or a registered dietitian to ensure that you are getting all of the nutrients your body needs.
Below we have put together a short list of common foods that include nightshades with some great alternatives:
- Culprits: soups, salads, pasta sauce, salsa, ketchup, BBQ sauce.
- Alternatives: radishes, Carinara, pesto, olives, and beets are all great options.
- Culprits: French fries, spice mixes, potato chips, mashed potatoes, baked goods (read labels closely – look for starch!)
- Alternatives: Sweet potatoes, yams, yucca root, and other root vegetables can be great substitutes.
- Culprits: hot sauce, chili, spice mixes, pizza toppings, sauces, salsa, chips.
Alternatives: Carrots, celery, or zucchini to add texture and flavor. Spices like ginger, turmeric, and cumin can add heat and flavor.
Nightshades have been a topic of controversy throughout history. They have been used for good and nefarious purposes alike. Similarly, while many people are able to safely consume nightshades without a second thought, some experience negative reactions to nightshade consumption. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to a nightshade free diet. It is important to listen to your body and pay attention to how certain foods affect you. If you are experiencing adverse reactions to nightshades, it may be worth eliminating them from your diet and observing the changes. If you do choose to eliminate nightshades, we (and Carinara) are here for you. Our mission is to bring more people to the table, and most importantly, to have more people leaving the table feeling good.