Nightshades: When to Avoid & How to Substitute

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Nightshades are a common group of foods that include peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants. While nightshades are Paleo friendly, some people don’t tolerate them well. The AIP food plan excludes them completely. So who should avoid them, and how can you replace them in a diet?

What Are Nightshades?

Belladonna, a plant that is a member of the nightshade family, means beautiful lady in Italian and was used historically to enlarge the pupils of women’s eyes. At the time, this supposedly made them seem more attractive. Pupil dilation is a side effect of this “deadly nightshade” that acts to block nerve function and, when taken in large enough doses, can cause coma and death. Belladonna has also been used throughout history as a poison. Fortunately, not all nightshades are deadly. Unfortunately, many people are sensitive to them to some degree, especially those with autoimmune disease. The following is a list of edible nightshades:

  • Tomatoes
  • Tomatillos
  • Tamarillos
  • Potatoes and starch from potatoes including “potato starch,” “starch,” and “vegetable starch” (but not sweet potatoes)
  • Eggplants
  • Bell peppers including green, red, orange, yellow, white, and purple
  • Banana peppers
  • Chili peppers (table pepper and peppercorns; black, white, green, and szechuan are not nightshades)
  • Paprika
  • Cayenne
  • Red pepper seasonings and “spices,” “natural flavors” and some curry blends that contain paprika, chili powder, and cayenne
  • Naranjillas
  • Pimentos
  • Pepinos
  • Goji berries
  • Ground cherries, also called cape gooseberries (fruit cherries are not nightshades)
  • Garden Huckleberries (huckleberries are not nightshades)
  • Ashwagandha, an ayurvedic herb

Nightshade fruits and vegetables are part of the Solanaceae family of plants that contain potentially toxic compounds called glycoalkaloids. In nature, glycoalkaloids are a type of saponin, which is a compound that protects plants against predatory insects by poisoning them and dissolving their cell membranes.

In humans, glycoalkaloids can also have toxic effects. They are difficult to digest and can cause damage to the lining of the intestine in several ways including directly killing epithelial cells or creating small holes in these cells. If enough glycoalyloids leak from the intestine into the bloodstream, they can cause hemolysis by literally dissolving the membranes of red blood cells. They also have the potential to elicit an immune response.

Not everyone is sensitive to nightshades. In people with healthy guts and low levels of inflammation, nightshades are often eaten without a problem. People with leaky guts, inflammatory bowel disease, or who have autoimmune disorders may find that nightshades make their symptoms worse.

Symptoms of Nightshade Sensitivity

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Nightshades tend to aggravate conditions that are characterized by chronic pain, such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. The evidence for nightshade sensitivity is anecdotal but abundant, and symptoms often include:

  • Joint pain
  • Joint stiffness
  • Muscle pain
  • Nerve pain
  • Poor healing
  • Insomnia
  • Skin rashes
  • Heartburn
  • Digestive difficulties
  • Brain Fog
  • Headaches
  • Mood swings
  • Depression

Interestingly, you can be sensitive to one nightshade and not others because they all contain slightly different alkaloids. For instance, capsaicinoid is the primary alkaloid in chili peppers. Alpha-solanine and alpha-chaconine are found in potatoes. Eggplant contains alpha-solamargine and alpha-solasonine and tomatoes contain alpha-tomatine.

If you’re not sure you’re sensitive to one or more nightshades, remove all of them from your diet for at least 30 days. After that, do a food challenge by reintroducing them one at a time, once a week or more quickly, every three to four days if you’re confident that you’re not having a reaction. Starting with a small portion, eat the reintroduced food two or three times on the challenge day and not again as you monitor yourself for sensitivity over the next few days. During your challenge, read food labels carefully. Packaged lunch meat often contains nightshades and restaurant food can be loaded with them. Play it safe when dining out by ordering food unseasoned with sauces on the side. You can bring your own nightshade-free seasoning.

Your tolerance for nightshades may be a lot better after following an autoimmune protocol for 30 days to several months or longer to heal a leaky gut and reduce existing inflammation.

Substitutions For Nightshades

When nightshades are off the menu, all is not lost. Here are a few ideas for substitutions.

Bell Peppers

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Looking for that clean, fresh crunch? Try cucumber, zucchini, yellow squash, radishes, carrots, celery, or the stems of chard.

Eggplant

Green zucchini, yellow squash, or Portobello mushrooms will do the trick.

Paprika

If it’s just for garnishing, try ground pink peppercorn. If you’re substituting for taste, try fish sauce, coconut aminos, or a pinch of ground cloves.

Chili Peppers

Try black or white pepper, Cubeb pepper (berries), or szechuan peppercorns. Cloves, ginger, cinnamon, mustard powder, horseradish, and wasabi can also add warmth to a dish.

Red Pepper Seasonings

In addition to the chili pepper substitutions listed above, try anything with a strong flavor such as garlic, cumin, turmeric, chives, or onion.

White Potatoes

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All varieties of sweet potatoes, plantains, mashed or roasted cauliflower, turnips, or parsnips will sub in for white potatoes.

Tomatoes

Beets, radishes, strawberries, and—believe it or not—watermelon can work in recipes that call for tomatoes.

Goji Berries

Grapes or any other small fresh or dried fruit that might add a sweet note to a snack or a meal can stand in for goji berries.

31 Recipes Without Nightshades

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Nightshade-free eating can be interesting and delicious! Be creative and experiment with different foods and seasonings until you find combinations that you like, or try any of the following recipes that are free from nightshades.

  1. Banana Muffins

  2. Sirloin Steak with Creamy Mushrooms

  3. Salmon with Spring Pea and Citrus Salad

  4. Ginger and Garlic Pork Tenderloin with Cauliflower Rice

  5. Pan-Seared Scallops

  6. Prosciutto Melon Wrap-Ups

  7. Strawberry Hazelnut Salad

  8. Baked Sweet Potatoes

  9. Cauliflower Mashers

  10. Kale Salad with Ham

  11. Smoked Salmon with Fennel and Dill

  12. Bacon Stir-Fry Breakfast

  13. Lamb and Spaghetti Squash

  14. Kale Salad with Chicken

  15. Butternut Squash with Garlic and Thyme

  16. Pumpkin Zucchini Muffins

  17. Creamy Chard

  18. Orange, Avocado, and Cashew Salad

  19. Grilled Chicken with Rosemary and Bacon

  20. Sauteed Sweet Potatoes

  21. Roasted Beets with Balsamic Glaze

  22. Maple Walnut Chicken

  23. Rosemary Green Beans

  24. Balsamic Asparagus Salad

  25. Chicken and Sweet Potatoes with Shallots

  26. Steamed Brussels Sprouts with Ginger and Almonds

  27. Coconut Shrimp

  28. Raw Cabbage and Pineapple Salad

  29. Apple Pie

  30. Chicken with Rosemary and Mushroom Glaze

  31. Toad in the Hole Almond Trout

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