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We often hear of people in pain being told to stay away from tomatoes. What is it about this fruit (yeah, it has seeds and is classified as a fruit) that makes it a food to avoid?

Allow me to introduce the Nightshade (Solanaceae) Family:

  • Tomatoes
  • Eggplant
  • Potatoes
  • Goji Berries
  • Tobacco
  • Peppers (bell peppers, chili peppers, paprika, tamales, tomatillos, pimentos, cayenne, etc)

At first glance, the nightshades may look like a random collection of foods that couldn’t possibly be related, yet every nightshade plant produces fruits that all sport that little green hat.

So how it works is that these plants manufacture their own natural pesticides called Glycoalkaloids. They defend the plants against bacteria, fungi, viruses, and insects by binding firmly to the cholesterol in the cell membranes of predators, disrupting the structure of their membranes, and causing their cells to leak or burst open upon contact—acting like invisible hand grenades.

Glycolakaloids are very similar to our stress hormone Cortisol. Both Cortisol and glycoalkaloids are anti-inflammatory. Glycoalkaloids have been shown in laboratory studies to possess antibiotic and antiviral properties, which is what nature designed them for. But they also have Solanaine, which has been studied for its ability to block cholintesterase, an important enzyme in nerve cells. The ability of this alkaloid to inhibit cholintesterase often results in joint stiffness and joint pain. And, the extremely potent form of Vitamin D3 in nightshade vegetables actually prevents proper calcium metabolism, causing the body to deposit calcium in the soft tissue (where you don’t want it) instead of in the bones (where you do), causing stiffness and pain.
Another harmful substance in nightshades is calcitriol, a hormone that signals the body to update calcium from the diet. Although adequate dietary calcium supports hormones, excess calcitriol causes too much calcium in the blood. This results in calcium deposits in soft tissues, such as tendons and ligaments.

It really can’t be emphasized enough that all these dangers are only relevant to people who are nightshade-sensitive.

If you aren’t sensitive to them, there’s absolutely no reason to rush out and eliminate all these foods from your diet “just in case.”
In fact, the same chemical compounds that cause so many problems in nightshade-sensitive people can bring benefits to people with healthy digestive systems. Capsaicin, for example, might be more familiar to most of us as an anti-inflammatory, one of the big health benefits of eating hot peppers. That’s because it really does work that way in healthy people. The minor irritation of the capsaicin triggers such a strong anti-inflammatory response that the overall result is anti-inflammatory and beneficial (if this sounds familiar, it’s the exact same way that antioxidants work).

If you have one of the following issues, eliminating nightshades (or at least strictly limiting them) might be beneficial:

  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Arthritis
  • Gout
  • Osteoporosis
  • Ongoing inflammation

One easy method to determine if nightshades are bad for you is this: eliminate them for 4 weeks and then re-introduce them… your body will tell you if you’re on the wrong track.

How to eat nightshades:

If nightshades are not a sensitivity for you and they do not cause unpleasant symptoms for you, here are some tips to enjoy nightshades in your diet:

  • Choose ripe nightshades, since solanine levels are highest in unripe ones. For example, choose juicy red tomatoes over green tomatoes and red peppers over green peppers. Green and sprouting potato are very high in Solanines
  • Cook nightshades if practical, since cooking reduces alkaloid content up to 50%. Lectins are also degraded, to varying levels, with cooking.
  • Use moderation and variety. I don’t think that anything should be eaten everyday, because that can cause the body to develop a sensitivity. So it isn’t a great choice to use tomato sauce as a daily condiment, for example. Enjoy variety in your meals and that will help you eat nightshades in moderation.