What are Nightshades? Are they Bad for You?

bag of nightshade vegetables including tomatoes and eggplants

As you know, we unequivocally love our vegetables here at Mark’s Daily Apple. Powerhouses of nutrients and antioxidant action, they’re the backbone of a good Primal Blueprint diet. But the issue of nightshades has come up a few times recently.

What are nightshades?

Nightshades are vegetables that find their roots in the Solanaceae family of plants, including a host of reputable spices and vegetables including:

  • eggplant
  • potatoes (yes, we know, not so reputable)
  • peppers (including bell peppers & those of the spicy variety)
  • tomatoes
  • tomatillos
  • pimentos
  • paprika
  • cayenne pepper
  • Tabasco sauce, et al.

(Black pepper and sweet potatoes are not nightshades.)

Are nightshades toxic?

Nightshade? Isn’t nightshade those plants (many with alluring little berries) our camp counselors told us never, ever, to so much as put our grubby hands on? Quite possibly.

Primal Blueprint Law #2: Avoid Poisonous Things

The kinds of nightshade plants growing wild in the woods can be highly toxic and what you may be thinking of as deadly nightshade. Some can cause death if ingested and others in the nightshade family actually have psychotropic properties. Inherent in this power is pharmaceutical potential. Very minute amounts of some nightshade components are prescribed to successfully treat a few kinds of allergic reactions or chemical poisoning, as well as nausea related to certain conditions.

These potent little components are alkaloids, chemical substances that have one or more circular structures containing nitrogen. Essentially, they act as natural pesticides.

Four kinds of alkaloids in the Solanaceae family include:

  • steroid alkaloids (the alkaloid found in most nightshade foods)
  • tropane
  • pyrrolizidine
  • indole alkaloids

Steroid alkaloids have been shown to block certain nerve activity that can, at high levels or large doses, cause muscle shaking, paralysis and respiratory difficulty. They have also been associated with inflammation, particularly in the joints. Finally, some nightshade foods like eggplant and tomato contain trace amounts of nicotine.

But what does this mean for the tomato salad I always serve at our 4th of July barbecue? Should I give up eggplant parmigiana? No peppers or Tabasco? I thought hot food was good for me!

Before you raid your kitchen and gardens, let’s stop and take a closer look here. First off, nightshade foods contain a very small fraction of the alkaloid levels found in other “toxic” nightshade plants. If nightshades presented a major health threat to humans, we would’ve stopped eating them a long time ago or died off from the inability to learn from our neighbor’s experience.

Even when nightshade foods are common ingredients in certain ethnic diets (peppers in parts of Latin America or tomatoes in Italy, to give some basic examples), the population as a whole in those parts doesn’t seem to suffer ill effects.


Are nightshades bad, or are they O.K.?

Our simple answer: eat them (and enjoy them) in moderation if you don’t feel any ill effects.

While research hasn’t yet turned up any definitive evidence that the alkaloid-containing foods in question harm the human system, it’s generally accepted that some people are much more sensitive to them than others.

Nightshade vegetables and inflammation

In those with this sensitivity, nightshades have been associated with symptoms like stomach discomfort, digestive difficulties, joint pain, and muscle tremors.

These reports have been enough to influence medical care professionals and some organizations to advise those with certain conditions like GERD, gout, or arthritis to avoid nightshades.

If you don’t have these conditions but are concerned, it’s a good idea to take a full 2-4 weeks off from nightshade foods and see if you feel any differently. Some of us have mild enough reactions that we may not feel the difference until we set our own “control” scenario for comparison.

Taking precautions with nightshades

If sensitivity to nightshades doesn’t seem to be a problem but you’d like to take some reasonable precautions, know that cooking nightshade foods (steaming, boiling, baking) can reduce the alkaloid levels to nearly half.

And yet another reason to avoid potatoes: sprouted potatoes (and their associated green parts) have higher levels of alkaloids than other foods.

Finally, we’d like to put in a plug for a widely varied diet. As much as we love our tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, we wouldn’t recommend making them the sole or primary vegetables in your diet. Variety offers the best in nutrient-rich and low-risk nourishment.

What are your thoughts on nightshades? Do you choose to include nightshades in your diet or avoid them? What influences your decision?

Further Reading & Additional Information:

Smart Fuel: Eggplant

Flame Thrower: 10 Ways to Reduce Inflammation

Health Benefits of Peppers (10 Peppers You Need to Try)

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