Nightshades: Delicious or deadly?
Nightshades are everywhere
The word “nightshade” sure sounds ominous, huh? Did you read about the 9-year old girl who died from eating nightshades ? I have a feeling the answer is no, but please don’t [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="First of all, that article is from 1948. Second of all, if you eat nightshades, you aren't really at risk of falling dead like this poor little girl above. She ate a few berries of the plant called Deadly Nightshade or Belladonna, which falls under this general plant family. This is one of the most toxic plants around, and is also the source of a widely-used prescription drug called atropine."]worry too much[/su_tooltip]. Plants that fall under the family of Nightshade (otherwise known by the fancy botanical name Solanacea ) are some of the most widely eaten foods on earth. Tomatoes and potatoes are the most commonly eaten of the edible nightshades, but there are a few others. Note what is not on the list: sweet potatoes, black pepper, and white pepper are not nightshades. Finally, note the most famous of all nightshades, and destroyer of lungs worldwide: the tobacco plant!
The man who started it all
Waaaaay back in the 1940s, a horticulturist named Norman Childers got the nightshade-pain ball rolling. He noticed that livestock who munched on nightshades had a tendency to develop arthritis. When these nightshade plants were taken away, the animals tended to have reduced arthritic symptoms. This phenomenon was noticed by others, namely veterinarians and botanists, but word didn’t really get out (Internet use was pretty low in the 1940s). More importantly, when Norman eliminated nightshades from his diet, his own arthritis was cured. The specific reasons why nightshades might be implicated in some cases of arthritis will be explained later. But for now, consider a couple things [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="
1) Dr. Norman Childers went on to become a legend in the field of Horticulture, and passed a way at the ripe old age of 100. Without eating any nightshades. Are these two facts correlated? It doesn't matter, because correlation is not causation. But the man was widely published, and very very knowledgeable about plants. And apparently he was pretty spry up through his late 90s.
2) Norman found this link more than 60 years ago. Yet, chances are that your doctor would never ever mention nightshades if you have arthritis, even if you specifically asked about foods that might set it off. Although this will not apply to everyone with arthritis, it is not a kooky theory, and we will see that there is definite biological plausability. Moral of the story: your doctor does not know everything. Do your own research :)"]about Dr. Childers[/su_tooltip].
A little note about plants
Don’t fall into this trap: “Tomatoes are vegetables. Vegetables are good for you.” First of all, you may be aware that the tomato is botanically a fruit, but legally a vegetable . Second of all, believing that edible plants are all good for you is a very modern way of thinking. Back in the day, before agriculture started, you had to know which plants helped you and which plants harmed you. Nowadays, we all know which plants might hurt you, if you happen to be sensitive to them. The prototypical example is the ever increasing number of people with peanut allergies . But there are more bad plants than just the occasionally evil peanut and the occasionally trip-inducing mushroom. If you have a severe peanut allergy, you would know it because eating a peanut would lead to an anaphylactic shock and a trip to the ER. But there are many, many people who have reactions to plants that don’t happen right away, and hence are hard to tie directly to the plant. We will get into this in depth in future articles. One more note about these plants. Nightshades were not eaten by your ancestors. Is this important? Ehhhh… [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="The three most common nightshades are tomato, potato, and pepper. They're are all native to Central and South America. One of the less widely eaten nightshades, eggplant, is native to India. So being Indian, my ancestors might have, on occasion, eaten some eggplant. But chances are, your ancestors never touched a nightshade. In fact, the tomato was considered poisonous in much of Europe during much of the period between the 1600s and 1800s, likely due to confusion between the poisonous leaves and the non-poisonous fruit. Thus it languished as an ornamental plant instead of a food crop.
This is not important in practicality, as there many foods that are perfectly fine to eat that your ancestors never were exposed too. But if you are trying to battle something multifaceted like chronic pain, it is always worth it to think about what unlikely suspects may be at work."]maybe yes maybe no[/su_tooltip].
Now that you know a little bit about nightshades, let’s learn a little bit about how they may affect pain by clicking on the next tab over …
Culprit #1…Vitamin D?
Dr. Childers blamed the arthritis-inducing tendencies of nightshades on its vitamin D content. I bet you’re a little confused…isn’t vitamin D [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="Vitamin D, aka the sunshine vitamin, has an incredible number of important health benefits, and is likely the most important of all vitamins. However, vitamin D is actually a prohormone, and not quite like the other vitamins. It has a greater variety of functions, and is not generally found in foods. One of the best sources of vitamin D information is the Vitamin D Council. Google them to learn about the benefits of optimal vitamin D levels."]supposed to be good for you[/su_tooltip]? In fact, the first paper I co-authored was on “Vitamin D and Cardiometabolic Outcomes” . Being entrenched in academia, I was skeptical of Dr. Childers’ claims. I’m still a little skeptical, but the science is pretty legit. Here’s why.
Way back in 1976, a professor of biomedical sciences at Cornell University got a paper published in the prestigious journal “Science”. His lab found that a South American nightshade plant contained the active form of vitamin D! Other papers have backed up this finding. [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="Most doctors, websites, and nutritionists will tell you that you can get vitamin D by exposure to sunlight (which creates vitamin D3 in your skin), eating certain animals such as fish that contain already active vitamin D, or by eating food fortified with vitamin D2. Nightshades appear to throw a wrench into the equation, as the one referenced here contains the D3 form as well as other metabolites of vitamin D."]This is surprising[/su_tooltip]. Too much vitamin D can potentially screw with your calcium balance. And because of the potent form of vitamin D in this plant, it can cause calcium to deposit into the joints of animals that eat the leaves, causing pain and crippling arthritis. Is this the case with humans? Nobody knows. The mechanism is there, but we don’t share the same physiology as these animals, nor do we graze on leaves in South America. On the other hand, calcification is a big freaking deal. One of the best predictors of getting a heart attack is a high coronary calcium score. You don’t want calcium to be going where it doesn’t belong! If you are concerned about calcification, consider getting more vitamin K2 to help counter it, which is found in cheese, grass-fed butter, natto, and some supplements.
Culprit #2…Nightshades and your nervous system
Your nerves use certain chemicals to communicate with each other and with your brain. If something bad happens to this communication system, things can go wrong with many different things in your body. One of these chemicals is called acetylcholine, and certain chemicals in nightshades can screw up how acetylcholine gets used in the [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="Basically, certain nightshade chemicals can stop the body from breaking down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This makes it so that acetylcholine just loiters around the gap between nerve endings. That is a bad thing, because it makes nerves think that they should keep firing, when in reality they'd be better of chillin out for a while. Overactive nerves could then lead to things ranging from headaches to muscle spasms to sleep problems."]space between nerve endings[/su_tooltip].
How does this happen? Nightshades contain a variety of chemicals called glycoalkaloids, which are substances used by these plants to scare away animals that want to eat them. Pretty much like human-made pesticides, but naturally made. But natural is not always good! These natural pesticides, such as solanine and tomatine, can irritate your intestines and cause a variety of other problems by affecting acetylcholine. Thankfully, the majority of these substances are found in parts of the plant we don’t eat, such as the leaves. You don’t eat tomato leaves regularly, do you? Good.
Study #1: Arthritis, fibromyalgia, and the immune system
One study from 1998 looked at the relationship of food sensitivities to joint and muscle pain. It looked at how pain patients reacted to antigens from certain foods. What are antigens? Antigens are simply molecules that make your body mount an [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="Food is a common source of antigens, and some of these antigens can cause the immune system to launch an allergic reaction that goes way overboard and attacks things in the body that aren't doing any harm. One common pain condition that involves the immune system going haywire and attacking inappropriate stuff (aka an autoimmune reaction) is rheumatoid arthritis. Another is multiple sclerosis. Yet another is asthma. Do you see a connection between these conditions? The connection is that these are all diseases where the doctor will treat you but not tell you how to prevent the disease. They are also all diseases with many theorized causes. And I have no doubt that nutrition is one of the top causes in autoimmune reactions. So much so, that a future post will be alllllll about the subject!"]immune reaction[/su_tooltip].
The theory that this paper was based on is that antigens from some foods can leak through your intestine and cause joints and/or muscles to be attacked by your own immune system. Intestines can become leaky because of wide variety of things, including overuse of some medications and a diet high in gut-attacking foods. The authors found that between 56-67% of patients at their clinic who had pain issues were reactive to antigens from various nightshade plants. When patients were tested against antigens from several different foods, fibromyalgia patients had the highest rate of reactivity, followed by arthritic patients and then back pain patients. The study authors concluded that they found “a high correlation between food sensitivities and musculoskeletal disease”.
My take from this study: it doesn’t really mean anything, and is not a very high quality study because of [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="The authors did not include a comparison group that did not have pain, and they did not list results for other categories of foods other than nightshades. Also, reacting to antigens on a molecular level (meaning, positive blood test or skin test results) does not at all mean that someone is going to show disease symptoms. Additionally, there were very few patients per condition, with 9 patients each having fibromyalgia and back pain. Lastly, there is very little information given about these patients, such as what other diseases they had or what their diets were like. The article was published in The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, which is not indexed in the National Library of Medicine (not that it can't have perfectly fine articles regardless)."]poor study design, few patients, and lack of detail[/su_tooltip]. So while we may note with interest that there may be something to nightshade antigens and reactions in pain patients, we can’t really draw any conclusions from this paper.
Study #2: Dr. Childers’ report
Dr. Childers made it his mission to help those whose arthritis is caused by nightshades. As part of this effort, he surveyed volunteers to see if they had stopped eating nightshades and seen a decrease in pain. Most of the respondants (94 percent!!) were substantially helped by a nightshade-free diet, when they were rigid with following it. About two thirds had relief when mostly complying with the diet.
Unfortunately, this is another poor quality study. Dr. Childers did not make any claims as to the certainty of this data, which is good. Because this was simply a survey of volunteers who bought a book about nightshades and arthritis. One reason you might buy such a book is if you suspect that nightshades might be causing your pain. While you’re eliminating nighshades from your diet, you might do other things such as lose weight, or even just improve your symptoms from the time you started the book until the time you ended the book. So in summary, this is not a trial; and without a trial, it is hard to make any conclusions about the link between nighshades and pain in humans.
Should you think about eliminating nightshades?
So…are nightshades the cause of your pain? Probably not. But ten billion things can cause pain, so nothing is ALWAYS the culprit. The question is whether it is worth it for you to try an [su_tooltip style="bootstrap" content="How do you do an elimination diet? Well, you can certainly google it, but you'll find lots of different methods. I would suggest that you keep in mind a couple things. First, you want to establish a base diet that does not cause problems. What foods generally cause problems for certain people? Dairy, grains, nuts, legumes, and shellfish. Eliminate sugar because it rarely good for anything. So start with a basic diet that doesn't include those things, but in which you get enough calories, protein, and healthy fats. The most important thing is to track, track, track! Open up a spreadsheet and track every single day to see if you complied with your diet, and how you feel. Don't quit after just a few days. But if it isn't working after some time (a month?)...switch it up and try another approach."]elimination diet[/su_tooltip]. The answer is…definitely! Depending on who you are. No reliable lab test can predict if you are sensitive to nightshades. Those who are under high stress, have previously-injured joints, or have a genetic susceptibility to nerve issues should watch out. Here are some categories of people with pain, and my suggestions for them:
1. Longtime arthritis sufferer
Try a nightshade elimination diet. Just do it. It might do absolutely nothing, but you also don’t want to be taking pharmaceutical drugs with harmful side effects your whole life. Also, arthritis wears down joints over time, and you don’t want to be amongst the millions of Americans getting multiple replacement joints.
2. Sports injury
It might not be worth it. If you haven’t experienced pain before, and have an injury of moderate duration (a week to a couple months), the pain is probably not from nightshades.
Try the diet! Not necessarily because nightshades are causing your pain, but because fibro is caused by so many strange things. But try to attack this from multiple angles–do some reading on fibro and massage, fibro and vitamin D, etc etc.
4. Autoimmune disease
Do you have an autoimmune disease? Then think about trying a nightshade elimination, getting your vitamin D level checked by your doctor, and eliminating wheat from your diet. There’s a lot of things to consider in autoimmune disease, and these are just some of them. But there’s no time like the present to become your own Sherlock Holmes, and potentially solve your own illness.
In conclusion, I’d say that nightshades are something that most people with chronic pain should at least learn about. Why? It costs exactly zero dollars to eliminate them, and I’m absolutely sure that at least a few people will be surprised at this seemingly innocent class of plants being the cause of their pain. But for everyone else who tries to eliminate nightshades and fails to see a decrease in pain, please keep your hopes up. There are many other things to consider related to pain, and we will cover most of them in the coming months.
+If you're sensitive to nightshades, eliminating them for a few days to a few weeks could be magic for pain
+It's free to do an elimination diet
-It could take weeks of strict elimination before seeing results
-There hasn't been much academic research on the topic