Do Nightshades Promote Inflammation?
Photo courtesy of Museums.org.za
A few days ago I promised a post on nightshades in the comments, so here goes. First, we need to define what a nightshade is. Nightshades are any plant from the family Solanaceae. We are namely interested in two genera: Capsicum and Solanum, or the pepper genus and tomato/eggplant/potato genus respectively. It should also be noted that another genus, Nicotiana (tobacco), is in the nightshade family.
Ok, so we’re dealing with tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers (of all sorts except peppercorns), along with goji berries and gooseberries. Dr. Garrett Smith has written three articles on the nightshade vegetables and their effects in the past few months of the Performance Menu (Issues 33, 35, and 36), with at least one more to come. If you’re a subscriber, you’ve probably read them. If not, you should download one of these issues for free to get a taste of the journal. And in the interest of not disclosing all of what’s in journal articles that I didn’t write, I’m only going to skim the surface.
So what problems do they cause? Tomatoes and eggplants were originally used as ornamentals rather than as food as they were considered poisonous. One of the major problems attributed to nightshades is arthritis, a disease which affects most of the population at some point in their life. Dr. Smith’s first article, in Issue 33, ran down an impressive list of animal studies showing calcinosis (the animal version of osteoarthritis) in rats, sheep, rabbits, chicks, and guinea pigs. They aren’t humans, but it is multiple mammalian species undergoing the same process. Further, all food nightshades contain some level of nicotine, the addictive chemical found in tobacco, which could explain why hot stuff is so addictive (to go with the endorphin release to counter the pain). Apparently dietary nicotine can inhibit wound healing above extremely small doses.
The article in Issue 36 is just downright damning of the hot peppers. There is the very good point that these peppers are the only food we eat that cause us pain and that pain is typically interpreted as a bad thing. There’s also some information on capsaicin and its inhibitory effects on the healing process. As I said, I just wanted to skim the surface of Dr. Smith’s articles as it’s not my place to go through them in-depth, giving away information for free. I encourage you to do some research and check out the articles in the Performance Menu. Off the top, we’ve already just looked at the nightshades and their effects on arthritis and the numerous effects they have on the wound healing process. I think the next article in the series is going to discuss epidemiological evidence of nightshade effects in populations that eat a lot of them.
Now for a bit of personal experience. When I first changed my eating habits for the better a few years back, I started incorporating lots of salads (still do, but that’s beside the point). One to two salads per day, each with tomatoes and green peppers. Along with that, I was just learning to cook and wasn’t a big fan of vegetables yet, so I was dousing them and meat with lots of hot sauce. As you can see, I was incorporating lots of nightshades into my diet. At that level of consumption, I started getting all kinds of popping in my joints, especially in my back and even in my sternum. It wasn’t painful, but that I could pop pretty much anything at will was disconcerting. At the time I had no idea about nightshades, so I just kept munching along with no idea of the cause, figuring that since there wasn’t any pain, it was benign
Later, Dr. Smith started talking about nightshades on the CrossFit forum and I decided to try cutting back. I cut out the tomatoes and peppers from my salads and cut back on the hot sauce. Lo and behold, the popping in my back and sternum went away. But here’s the fun part…I had shoulder surgery last June after two more dislocations. I now have “a bum stick”. Well, you know how people that have bad ankles and knees say they can feel barometric changes? I now have a gauge of whether I’ve overdone it on the nightshades. Since the nightshade vegetables tend to promote inflammation, I can feel it acutely in my shoulder joint, particularly when exercising, but there will also be a constant dull ache. It feels like I have small air or fluid pockets under the ball of the humerus. And one week, light exercise will irritate it if I’ve been overdoing the nightshades, while the next I can do max deadlifts, squats (puts the shoulder in a tight position), presses, or anything else with no intra-joint pain if I’ve been laying off the nightshades. That’s all the proof I need.
So can I say without a doubt that nightshades are bad for everyone? No. I’m not bold enough to make such a statement. I will say that everyone should try going a month without them to see if it has any effect on how they recover from exercise, how their arthritis feels, and how they feel in general. Then, as Dr. Smith says, have a nightshade festival. Eat nightshades to your heart’s content and see how you feel for the next few days. I have a feeling that these foods affect everyone to some degree. I know that I can include a little with no ill effects, but need to watch overdoing it. I’m working to completely exclude them from my diet.
Experimenting on yourself is really the only way to know what does and doesn’t affect you. I also think there’s something to the notion of eating seasonally here. Peppers and the like aren’t year-round foods in nature, though our modern supermarkets and global distribution systems allow you to eat nightshades without ever taking a break from them. Robb Wolf introduced us geeks to the concept of hormesis a while back. This is the “generally-favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors. A pollutant or toxin showing hormesis thus has the opposite effect in small doses than in large doses.” Perhaps the elements in nightshades, such as capsaicin, have a positive effect at low doses, but a harmful effect at high doses. Perhaps eating plenty of peppers and tomatoes during the summer/fall harvest and then not at all during the winter and spring is not harmful.
Another source of information is the Arthritis Nightshades Research Foundation. It’s all very unfortunate since a fresh-made salsa could be one of nature’s greatest gifts to man. But besides the obvious foods like tomato sauce and salsa, you also have to watch for paprika (made from dried peppers), which is in most prepared mustards, many seasoning rubs, and the seasoning mixes of pre-made sausages and bacon. It can get tough with store-bought foods. I’m not telling you what to eat and what not to, but I am saying to give it some consideration and try an elimination on yourself.