Nightshade Foods, Delectable or Deadly?

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“Dear Pharmacist,

I live in chronic pain, it’s usually my joints but now my nerves are involved. My tests are all normal, and my doctor gives me Celebrex, Vicodin and Flexeril. I feel doped up, and still live in pain. What else can I do?”
–B.C., Sanibel Island, Florida

Answer: Avoid eating a certain class of foods known to ignite pain in the muscles, joints and nerves. Some of you can guess which foods I’m talking about here, especially if you grew up in tropical regions of the United States, where your summer camp counselor told you to avoid the wild berries of deadly nightshade, which contain belladonna. Nightshades belong to the Solenaceae family and I bet you eat a nightshade food each day.

The most common are tomatoes, white potatoes (not sweet potatoes or yams), potato starch is found in hundreds of medications; eggplant, and peppers (including all those deliciously spicy peppers like cayenne, chili, and habenero). Tabasco sauce, which contains large amounts of heat-causing “capsicum annum,” ranks up there.  Paprika is a sneaky one, showing up in flavoring mixes or under “added spices” on the label. Other nightshades include goji berries (bummer, they’re the latest rage in the antioxidant crowd), ashwagandha, Cape gooseberries, ground cherries, and garden huckleberries (thankfully not blueberries). We all know cigarettes cause cellular damage, but they are also a nightshade!

These all cause pain! If you don’t believe me, have a full-on nightshade “party” and load the salsa on your breakfast omelet, have French fries with lunch, and for dinner, eat eggplant parmesan with some stir-fry peppers and tomatoes. NSAIDs anyone? Because all those nightshades are sure to cause a flare-up for you, necessitating non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). The flare-up could take 3 hours to 3 days to occur, so connecting the dots is tricky. If you are sensitive to weather changes, this could be a sign of nightshade sensitivity, don’t ask me why.

So what’s the problem with some our favorite farmer’s market heroes?  Well, nightshades contain alkaloids that accumulate and block an enzyme called “cholinesterase” lighting the body’s pain fuse: Muscle spasm, aches, joint pain, tenderness, hip pain, inflammation, and stiff movement. Heartburn too! And you thought heartburn was related to a Prilosec-deficiency, didn’t you? While symptoms may dissipate in a few days or weeks if there is no more consumption, the problem is that we keep eating nightshades in almost every meal. The body never gets clear of them so it stays ‘on fire’ 24/7 despite all your pain-relievers.

If you’re otherwise healthy, eat up! But if live in chronic pain, or have Rheumatoid arthritis, try completely eliminating nightshades for 3 solid months. Hang in there because it takes a few weeks before the pain even begins to retreat. I’ve read anecdotal reports where some people kiss pain goodbye forever, just by avoiding nightshades. Can you imagine? Complete pain relief, it costs nothing and the only downside is an occasional craving.