Nightshades and AIP: The Definitive Guide

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nightshades and AIP

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)

The Lists

Here’s a very complete list of nightshades we commonly eat (2):

    • Ashwagandha
    • Bell peppers (or sweet peppers)
    • Bush tomato
    • Cape gooseberry (or ground cherries, these are NOT the same as regular cherries)
    • Cocona
    • Eggplant
    • 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)
    • Kutjera
    • Naranjillas
    • Paprika
    • Pepinos (or melon pear)
    • Pimentos
    • Potatoes (there are hundreds of potato varieties that are in the nightshade family and you are probably most familiar with a white potato)
    • Tamarillos
    • Tomatillos
    • Tomatoes

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: 

  • Artichokes
  • Blueberries
  • Huckleberries
  • Okra
    • 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!

References

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

About Angie Alt

Angie Alt is a co-founder here at Autoimmune Wellness. She helps others take charge of their health the same way she took charge of her own after suffering with celiac disease, endometriosis, and lichen sclerosis; one nutritious step at a time. Her special focus is on mixing “data with soul” by looking at the honest heart of the autoimmune journey (which sometimes includes curse words). She is a Certified Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Nutritional Therapy Consultant through The Nutritional Therapy Association and author of The Alternative Autoimmune Cookbook: Eating for All Phases of the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol and The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook. You can also find her on Instagram.

23 comments

  • Karin says

    I have been Paleo for 10 years and started AIP as soon as Dr Ballantyne’ book came out.
    I have MS and joint issues. I was able after working on my gut to reintroduce most foods but not gluten, dairy or nightshades. I did find white potatoes in moderation to be ok. Just like your article. However, I was traveling last week and had an accidental nightshade in a restaurant. One bite I knew there was chilies involved. It took 4 days but my joints flared and have not calmed yet. I guess there is no point in ever trying to reintroduce them. 😞

  • Dot says

    Thank you for this thorough investigation that you have done. I appreciate it.

  • Kelly says

    I have Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism. I can’t say if nightshade elimination made a big impact because I went full on AIP after a month of eliminating dairy and gluten (which helped headaches, but not much else). After over a year on AIP, I have made a lot of progress, but nothing was immediate or drastic. I haven’t tried to reintroduce any nightshades yet, but would really love to. My partner and his family are Mexican and Mexican food has always been my favorite, so I’m hoping for the best. This article definitely gives me some realistic expectations, though.

  • Michelle Laws says

    I have no (known) autoimmune disease but my daughter has Crohn’s Disease(and my husband has Ulcerative Colitis). We have been paleo-ish for a decade and then went through a full AIP protocol this last year. It was super interesting to find out (ironically) that my daughter had no improvement on AIP and no symptoms with any reintroductions, but I found that I had a HUGE reaction to all nightshades but especially potatoes. My knee pain that I’ve had for decades is just gone, it’s amazing. I thought I would eventually have knee surgery but now I have zero pain. I will never eat potatoes again, pain is such a clear teacher. Tomatoes and peppers have a different effect on me than potatoes do, but also unmistakable. Since their effect is more intestinal, I have eaten a little tomato sauce a couple of times, I can accept those side effects on a rare occasion. 🙂

  • Kris says

    Hello Angie,
    Thank you so very much for writing this article! It summarizes what I have intuitively thought about nightshades for a long time. I live in Seattle, and I oddly felt relieved when I discovered it is near impossible to successfully grown nightshades in this cool wet climate. Yet even when I lived in California (SF Bay Area), I felt obligated to grown nightshades in my garden, even when I wasn’t a fan of eating them!
    I have Hashimoto’s and after eliminating nightshades, gluten, dairy and sugar I began to notice a difference in my moods and blood sugar levels. Most importantly I have decreased the amount of migraines I was experiencing from 2x month to 2 since I was diagnosed July 2020.
    I decided a few months back that I was not going to reintroduce gluten and dairy, since I didn’t miss them at all. I also decided to not reintroduce nightshades. This choice was made because I never really liked any of the veggies in the nightshade family (other than red and orange peppers) and noticed a difference in my health after eating them. I’ve learned to listen to my intuition. 🙂
    The design of the AIP food lifestyle has opened up a world of new food, tastes, combinations, and mindset for me. I’m actually in a place of gratitude for my diagnosis. I’ve lost 25 lbs, my migraines are almost gone, my mood and energy levels are consistently going up daily. And I just feel a heck of a lot better! I also have applied neuroplasticity therapy to my daily routine and would like to talk with you and Mickey about this additional way to heal. I’ll send this inquiry as a separate email.
    A big huge gigantic load of gratitude for you and Mickey! Your idea to offer your personal experience and combined knowledge to the world has helped, undoubtedly, hundreds of thousands of people – guiding us the healing path.
    Thank you, from every cell in my being!
    Kris Parfitt Travers

  • Wendy L says

    I have 3 autoimmune diseases which I will list in the order that they showed up: Hashimotos, Vitiligo, Multiple Sclerosis. When I first did the AIP elimination diet, I noticed such a massive impact with the removal of gluten, that it was very challenging to determine if the nightshades were an issue because I had so much less pain and numbness and the nightshades did not bring that back on reintroduction. (I also do not get the usual GI symptoms) I do think that it would be prudent to do another elimination phase now that I am further along in my journey and determine what else might be beneficial to avoid. As far as my current eating goes – I did recently notice (after doing a bunch more gut healing work) that a mexican spice blend (curated by hand) gave me a bit of a flare that I hadn’t ever noticed before – it did have paprika (which i love) and chili powder, cumin, … so that was a clue that there is some more exploration to be done! I don’t seem to have challenges with white potato or tomato, but I don’t consume them very often (potato more than tomato).

  • Julie says

    – I deal with Celiac and Hashimoto’s (maybe others but these are the 2 ‘identified’)
    – I felt better after eliminating nightshades and I try to avoid them but I miss them terribly and they are difficult to avoid when eating out or at somebody’s house. I seemed to react strongest to eggplant – diarrhea immediately, whereas potato would only sometimes seem to give me a headache. Peppers and tomatoes I have varied responses; if I have a tiny bit in ‘seasoning’ that I can’t avoid I don’t have an overly bad response. Weirdly, I’m okay with ketchup – do you think that’s because of the way it’s prepared? That’s the only nightshade food to which I don’t seem to react.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Julie, I have heard some people say they are less sensitive to cooked tomato than raw… maybe that is what is going on with the ketchup? I can’t have tomato in any form, so not sure, but that would be my thought!

  • Julie says

    Forgot to mention I enjoyed this article, thank you for writing. Can you write one about nuts and seeds vs ‘drupes’ ; does a nut’s ‘classification’ as a true nut vs a drupe make a difference for AIP? Are there ‘safer’ nuts/seeds to try to reintroduce back in?

  • Andrea says

    Hi, I have been diagnosed with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Tomatoes are the worst! Sinus problems and sores in my nose. The only nightshade I can eat is white potatoes.

  • Janet says

    I have hypothyroid disease, and possibly heading toward arthritis or one of the other related diseases.
    No impact when I took them out of my diet, but when we introduced after 6 months the tomatoes and potatoes both caused intense stomach upset and vomiting. After four and a half years, I never eat tomatoes( but it might be the seeds that are the problem). I occasionally eat a little bit of white potato or sweet peppers.

  • Robyn says

    I’m diagnosed with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue & asthma. I found the AIP framework over 7 years ago, and eliminating nightshades had the biggest positive impact on my health (I had already been gluten free for almost 10 years and dairy free most of my life). I haven’t been able to reintroduce at all – in fact I have a bigger reaction to nightshades now than I do to gluten or dairy. I’m also the 3rd generation to have adverse reactions to nightshades – Mum finds her hands ache and she gets terrible indigestion, and her mother found her arthritis flared up when she ate potatoes.
    I’ve found the various no-mato sauce recipes are a fantastic substitute for pasta/pizza sauce. The one we make up regularly is based on the recipe from The Healing Kitchen and has been used in spaghetti bolognese, lasagna, chicken parma, pizza sauce and various other pasta dishes.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge around this topic for us.

  • Cheryl says

    I do better without nightshades however I also find other foods increase inflammation in my fingers (swelling). …things like eggs. I’m also suspicious about apples & grapes.

  • Lisa says

    THIS IS ALL SO TRUE! I knew decades before (by the process of elimination and re-addition) that I could NOT eat any peppers or tomatoes. I don’t eat eggplant often, but it was not long to figure out that it caused me a slight problem. Since I was allowed to have potatoes with my Celiac Disease, I tended to “over indulge” and then found them to be an issue too. At the time I had never heard of “Nightshades” but stumbled upon the term and the “short list” (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes). Ah ha! Now it all made sense! 20 years later I’m still Nightshade free and though I miss many ethnic foods that use these veggies in plenty, any introduction aggravated my SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth) and then my diagnosed SIFO (Fungal Overgrowth or Systemic Candida). I will happily avoid Nightshades 100% the rest of my life to avoid the gut issues and joint pain they cause me!

  • Lisa says

    BTW: I found a dairy free “pesto paste” (it’s a concentrate in a tube that you can add more Olive Oil to) on Amazon. It’s actually from Italy (the best country to travel if you’re Gluten Free!) Called Amore. There are 6 tubes (refrigerate after opening) that are 2.8 ounces each in an order. Great price!! IF you want to add grated cheese for those who can eat dairy – it’s easy, but it was difficult to find GF, Dairy Free pesto which is a GREAT substitute for red sauces. Better than canned pumpkin, in my opinion….

  • MomLadyOR says

    Thanks Angie for this great article! I’ve struggled to reintro nightshades. I’ll have white potatoes for special occassions like Thanksgiving dinner. As you mention, 1 serving is fine, but having multiple servings over a few days is a problem. I end up with asthma like symptoms from white potatoes. I am curious though. I have always (been on this journey for over 10 years) avoided all forms of tomatoes but you’ve listed bush tomato. Is that a specific variety? Or any tomato on a bush as opposed to a ??? I really miss tomatoes! There are so many comfort foods I can’t have without them. Thanks for all you and Mickey do!!

  • Cathy says

    I have been on the AIP for 7 years now. My weakness is potatoes, even though I use sweet potatoes, parsnips and other similar vegetables. But, on special occasions I make for my family their favorite potato dish. Sometimes I’ll have just a few bites and you can set your watch that I have a reaction, rash on my face, headache, weakness in my R leg and swelling in my abdomen. I’ve finally decided that this is just not worth it. I can tolerate some nightshade spices in very small amounts and BBQ sauce once a month, maybe. Thanks for this article and the information in it. I’m going to eat okra again, because I had read it was a nightshade.

  • Annette says

    Nightshades!!! I love them, they don’t love me. Thank you for this article, so much good info.
    It has encouraged me to hang in there! I have been so discouraged at not being able to successfully get any nightshades back into my diet. Knowing the why seems to help somehow. Thank you and Mickey for all that y’all do, and for sharing so much.

  • I have a lot of autoimmune issues and I have no problem never eating a nightshade again. It’s just not worth it. Thanks for this great article. I have ordered the indian fusion cookbook, so I can cook indian type dishes for my husband who complains a lot about my AIP/spiceless cooking. I love AIP food, I think it’s delicious and very flavour full.

  • Erin says

    Yes! I never would have guessed that nightshades were a problem, but whenever I tried to reintroduce them on the AIP, I reliably had a flare of joint pain and GI issues. After 3 years, I thought I successfully reintroduced them, but after just a couple months, the pain came back. Now they are out for good!

    One more quick comment: Please add persimmons to the list! I had no idea that they were nightshades, and one little slice caused a two-week flare up.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Erin, persimmons are not a nightshade-family food! That doesn’t mean you can’t react to them, but they are from the family ebenaceae.

  • Cathy Krupa says

    I started my AIP journey in 2018 and have found that I have not been able to tolerate too much. I can have the occasional goat cheese and I seem to be able to tolerate eggs, whether they be in a recipe, hard boiled or scrambled however I try not to have these items too many days in a row as I will end up with a reaction. I am currently taking Atrantil hoping this helps to heal my gut. I know it is doing something because I am in a constant small reaction so I’m hoping that the future may allow me to eat more of a variety of food!

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