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Autoimmune Wellness has been around for quite a few years now, but one topic we’ve never explored in detail here is the nightshade elimination required during the first phase of the Autoimmune Protocol. As practicing health coaches and nutritional therapists, our information and resources are heavily focused on the practicalities and actual implementation of AIP, rather than the scientific “why” that our good friend, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, of The Paleo Mom tends to center her work on. However, recently a few things converged that made us decide it was high time we provide a definitive guide here on Autoimmune Wellness:
- we noticed some confusion in the AIP community around nightshades generally, and how to enjoy flavorful food and comforting textures without nightshades more specifically
- our recipe contributor, Indira Pulliadath, released her new cookbook, AIP Indian Fusion, and we’re excited to demonstrate through her work that nightshade elimination can be overcome, even in ethnic foods that are typically heavily reliant on nightshades
- after eight years of running her group program, SAD to AIP in SIX, Angie has some anecdotal observation to share about the impact of nightshades on those with autoimmune disease
Let’s jump in and find out what’s up with nightshades.
What are nightshades?
Be honest. Before embarking on AIP, you probably didn’t know a whole lot about nightshades, other than maybe having heard of “deadly nightshades,” in literature, right? And I’ll bet there’s a good chance you equated nightshades only with poisons, not foods that people actually eat. That’s okay, most people aren’t familiar with them. In fact, I know I’ve really hit the jackpot in terms of autoimmune-friendly dining, if I find a restaurant where the staff knows what I’m talking about when I mention nightshades (for the record, this has only happened three times in the nine years since I adopted AIP!).
So, what the heck are nightshades? They are a family of flowering plants with a technical botanical name, Solanaceae (sow·luh·nei·see·ai). There are close to 2,500 nightshade species, most of them aren’t edible, and some of them are outright toxic. They are also mainly found in the tropic regions of Latin America, so even more reason why those of us living outside those regions aren’t generally well-informed about nightshades. (1)
Here’s a very complete list of nightshades we commonly eat (2):
- Bell peppers (or sweet peppers)
- Bush tomato
- Cape gooseberry (or ground cherries, these are NOT the same as regular cherries)
- Garden huckleberry (these are NOT the same as regular huckleberries)
- Goji berries (or wolfberry)
- Hot peppers (like chili peppers, jalapenos, habaneros, chili-based spices, red pepper, cayenne)
- Pepinos (or melon pear)
- Potatoes (there are hundreds of potato varieties that are in the nightshade family and you are probably most familiar with a white potato)
One nightshade not seen on this list, because we don’t “eat” it, but which is still very commonly consumed, is tobacco. There are myriads of reasons to quit smoking, but if you’re a smoker who also has autoimmune disease, the impact of this nightshade might be another reason. It’s also important to consider that many prepared spice blends and other products might not be the whole form nightshades listed here, but still contain nightshades. For instance, curry powders, marinades, or anything that lists “spices” on the ingredient label (“spices” is very often paprika).
Things that seem like nightshades but aren’t:
- There are internet lists claiming that the above four foods are nightshades, but that has been debunked here.
- Sweet Potatoes
- Even though the “potato” name can be misleading, sweet potatoes are not nightshades, they are from the morning glory plant family. (3)
- Peppercorns (black, white, green, red, pink)
- Even though the “pepper” name can be misleading, peppercorns are not nightshades. Black, white, green, and red peppercorns are varying degrees of ripeness of the fruit from a flowering vine. Pink peppercorns are the berry of a shrub. (4) Despite not being nightshades, peppercorns are eliminated initially on AIP, because seed and berry-based spices are so small that they contain mostly seed and consuming the ground seed of plants can present a challenge for those with autoimmune disease.
Why are nightshades out during the elimination phase?
Now, let’s get into the “why” behind nightshade elimination. There are three compounds in nightshades that can be tough on anyone, but especially those with autoimmune disease, lectins, saponins, and capsaicin. I’m going to simplify the explanation of these compounds quite a bit, but if you’d like to dig even deeper, I’d recommend picking up a copy of The Paleo Approach by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne.
Lectins are a kind of protein that, among other things, helps a plant protect its seeds (its babies!) from being eaten. They do this by resisting our digestive processes, interacting with the cells lining our intestines, and eventually leading to a leaky gut. (2) As many of you know, leaky gut is already common in autoimmune disease, leading to a cascade of immune and inflammatory issues. From that perspective, anything further aggravating leaky gut is best avoided.
Saponins are plant-based organic chemicals that have a “soapy” quality. There is a particular type of saponin present in nightshades, called glycoalkaloid. (2) Much like lectin, one of the big roles of glycoalkaloid is basically as a chemical weapon that protects the plant by poisoning predators, like insects. The toxic effects can range from metabolism and behavioral disturbances to disruption of cell membranes and disruption of cholinesterase, and important enzyme to proper nerve function. (5) These toxic effects may be similar for humans. Additionally, saponins, particularly a glycoalkaloid in tomatoes, can act as adjuvants. Adjuvants rev up the immune system, which can be quite problematic for the already over-active immune system of those with autoimmune disease. (2)
Finally, capsaicin is a chemical compound found in chili peppers and is what gives them heat. It’s a very powerful irritant to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. (Once while living in West Africa, I chopped up local peppers without any gloves, not realizing they were an extremely hot variety. It was impossible to wash off and the skin on my hands burned for two days, so badly I had to sleep with ice packs on my hands!) As you guessed, the role here is protective, both from mammals and fungus. As with the lectins, capsaicin can also increase leaky gut. (2)
But What About the Nutrients?
There are plenty of sources online that will tell you there is no evidence that nightshades should be avoided by those with autoimmune disease. On the contrary, these sources will point to the nutrient content of many nightshade vegetables as a reason to include them. It’s true! Tomatoes are a source of vitamins A and C, plus the antioxidant, lycopene. Peppers have loads of vitamin C and can help with absorption of iron. Eggplants are rich in fiber. Cooked and cooled potatoes are high in resistant starch which can support a healthy microbiome.
The foods avoided during the elimination phase on AIP aren’t just randomly voted off the island. As Dr. Ballantyne refined the protocol, she considered both the “good stuff” and the “bad stuff” in deciding which foods should be temporarily eliminated and trialed later to see which worked best for an individual. Overall, the “bad stuff” with nightshades outweighed the “good stuff” and meant that those with autoimmune disease were more likely to see success with elimination.
Reintroduction Success and Anecdotal Observations
According to Dr. Ballantyne, “Of all the foods restricted on the Paleo diet autoimmune protocol, nightshades are the least likely to be reintroduced successfully.” Her conclusions are based on what she has seen in the scientific literature and her personal experience of nightshade exposure and a healing setback. I tend to agree with her conclusions based on my anecdotal observations over eight years of health coaching, particularly because my coaching practice has included a high-volume group program and three medical studies. That experience allowed me to observe the impact of both nightshade elimination and reintroduction on many people with a wide variety of autoimmune diagnoses. I’m working toward a future where we can test Dr. Ballantyne’s hypothesis and my observations in a research setting, but until then, here’s some patterns I’ve noticed:
- Nightshade elimination has a positive impact on symptoms for almost everyone with autoimmune disease, but it’s especially impactful for those with joint and skin-related diagnoses
- In terms of relative impact compared to other eliminated foods, nightshade elimination can be as important, if not more so, to symptom improvement as gluten, dairy, or sugar eliminations
- Those who view nightshades as their “currency” (the one food they felt they could not eliminate, but otherwise followed the autoimmune protocol) or who felt that small amounts of nightshade (i.e., in the form of spices) would not hold back progress, are very often proven wrong and it turns out that significant progress is made once they commit to nightshade elimination
- Nightshade reintroduction frequently fails, despite signs of strong healing progress and other successful reintroductions
- When nightshade reintroduction success is reported, it is most often peeled, white potato
- When nightshade reintroduction successes aside from potato are reported, it is very often with caveats, generally the success comes after many years of elimination, careful attention is paid to gut health maintenance in that time, and there are clear limits (i.e., only small amounts, only cooked, not in consecutive meals or on consecutive days, not more than one variety in a meal, etc.)
How to get the spice back in your life?
Okay, now you know all about nightshades and I just delivered the overall bummer news that successful reintroductions seem to pretty hard to achieve. What can you do to replace those big, “spicy” flavors and comforting textures of nightshades? Here’s some ideas:
- Ethnic foods that you love or that may be culturally important to you are not necessarily out! Check out books like AIP Indian Fusion, AIP Safari, My Paleo/AIP Indian Adventure, The Paleo AIP Italian Cookbook, and The Global Paleo AIP Kitchen for recipes that keep bold flavors front and center, without incorporating nightshades. Many of these cookbooks can also teach you about the ins and outs of creating these flavors even if you aren’t strictly following a recipe.
- Our own recipe collection has some great options on the nightshade-free front, but our friend, Rachael, over at Meatified, also does a good job creating heat without nightshades. This recipe is a perfect example of that.
- If you need a “starch” fix, replace potato with sweet potatoes, white sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, or butternut squash. Each can be cooked in the same ways as regular potato. Here’s a yummy parsnip fry recipe.
- Canned or pureed pumpkin can work as a good substitute in cases where tomato sauce was needed. You can also try nut & dairy-free pesto in place of tomato-based sauces.
- Google “Nightshade Free+[insert condiment]” for tons of great recipes that meet the need for sauces and condiments without nightshades. Here’s a great BBQ sauce recipe.
- Ginger, horseradish, wasabi, and garlic can all be used for extra heat. Also, try going to much larger amounts of herbs than you would previously use for surprising heat (for example, thyme can deliver in this way).
There it is! The definitive guide to nightshades and AIP! But we don’t want to stop here, because we’re really interested and we’re sure you are too. Let’s take the opportunity to conduct a little informal survey for the community. In the comments, please share with us:
- What autoimmune disease are you dealing with?
- What’s your experience with nightshade elimination? Did it make a big impact?
- What’s your experience with nightshade reintros? Were they a success?
We’re excited to keep learning about nightshades and autoimmune disease!
1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Solanaceae”. Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/plant/Solanaceae.
2. Ballantyne, S. (2013). The Paleo approach: Reverse autoimmune disease and heal your body. Las Vegas: Victory Belt Publishing.
3. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, AND YAMS: What’s the difference? (2020, November 09).
4. Higgins, E., &; Higgins https://www.farmersalmanac.com/author/edward-higgins, E. (2021, February 22). Where do peppercorns come from?
5. Chowański, Szymon et al. “A Review of Bioinsecticidal Activity of Solanaceae Alkaloids.” Toxins vol. 8,3 60. 1 Mar. 2016, doi:10.3390/toxins8030060