Removing Nightshade foods from your diet is an important component of starting AIP (auto-immune protocol) and healing your gut.
Why try a nightshade-free diet? Having a chronic, invisible illness is frustrating and isolating. You want to get to the bottom of it; for someone to be able to just tell you what’s wrong. You feel alone and hungry, afraid to eat.
But, there are over 50 million Americans living with an autoimmune disease. There are more than 100 confirmed autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, Lyme disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Although these diseases have a genetic component, medical advice is beginning to recognize environment, diet, and lifestyle factors as well. A great first step on your new health journey is to eliminate nightshades as part of the autoimmune paleo diet.
So...what is it?
What the heck is a nightshade? Nightshades are a botanical family of plants, also known as Solanaceae. There are more than 2,000 plant species in the nightshade family! Most of them are highly inedible, and many are even poisonous (such as jimsonweed). Did you know that even tobacco is a nightshade?
It’s important to note that many nightshades you’re unlikely to encounter in your daily life. But, there are some heavy hitters that you’ll find in tons of foods and snacks, including bell peppers, eggplant, Goji berries, hot peppers (like chili peppers, jalapeños, habaneros, chili-based sauces, red pepper, or cayenne), paprika, pimentos, potatoes (not sweet potatoes), tomatillos, and tomatoes.
Nightshade vegetables can feel impossible to avoid! There are hundreds of different varieties of nightshades; think of how many varieties of potatoes are at the grocery store! If a product lists “spices” in its ingredients, there’s a good chance paprika will be included.
Avoiding inflammation and leaky gut
Why does eating too many nightshades make you feel bad? It’s all about the science! Nightshades contain lectins and saponins, which cause inflammation. There are certain lectins that can cause an increase in intestinal permeability by resisting digestion, being heat resilient, and negatively interacting with proteins in the membrane of the cells that line the intestine. If that wasn’t enough science for you, saponins also contain adjuvants, chemicals that stimulate and exaggerate an immune response.
They rev up the immune response to proteins leaking out of the gut, which ultimately increases the likelihood of developing an antibody that mistakenly attacks normal proteins. This is how autoimmune diseases begin. Chili peppers, in particular, contain capsaicin, a steroidal stimulant that gives chilis their heat but also can potentially irritate skin, eyes, and mucous membranes and increase intestinal permeability.
If you’re suffering from any of the following symptoms, you might be sensitive to nightshades: irritable bowels, diarrhea, heartburn, nerve problems, joint pain or swelling, arthritis, acid reflux, heartburn, itching, leaky gut, autoimmunity or other chronic conditions. If you’re experiencing trouble breathing or mouth swelling, you should absolutely consult with a medical professional immediately. Working with a medical professional to figure out an individual plan is, of course, always recommended.
AIP Diet (auto-immune protocol)
One of the best ways to eliminate nightshades from your diet is through the autoimmune protocol, or AIP. AIP is a long term elimination diet strategy, which focuses on both food and lifestyle. Eliminating nightshades can help to reduce inflammation for many people.
The autoimmune paleo diet can be divided into 6 primary categories: vegetables (such as arugula, cauliflower, or kale), herbs and spices (like basil, cilantro, or turmeric), fruits (such as apple, mango, or plum), proteins, healthy fats, and pantry staples. The AIP diet recommends up to 9 servings of vegetables a day! It’s best to not overdo fruit, and to stay at about 2 servings per day. Fruit is fiber-rich, and may even contain antioxidants that help protect your cells from damage.
High-quality animal protein is a great vehicle for minerals, healthy fats, and energy! Look for grass-fed, pasture-raised, or wild-caught protein when possible to ensure they are compliant. Healthy fats also have a ton of great health benefits, like regulating the inflammation process in your body, acting as a carrier for nutrients, and allowing us to stay satiated. AIP compliant healthy fats can include avocado oil, beef tallow, chicken fat, coconut oil, olive oil, or palm oil.
You might feel nervous about ensuring that you’re still eating enough nutrient dense foods, or getting enough protein. Not to worry! Two foods heralded by many on the AIP, that can be the backstop of an exciting new food life, are bone broth and organ meats. Bone broth is super clean, with collagen and gelatin to support your intestinal lining as it heals. Yes, it sounds incredibly boring, I know! But, adding bone broth in during the evening when you are winding down can feel really warming and soothing. Plus, the nutrients have the added bonus of encouraging healthy hair growth, skin elasticity, and strong nails.
Bone broth is also incredibly easy to digest for those with gut issues, and has been eaten for thousands of years! It’s real food, made with real ingredients that your grandma would know. Also, anything for glowy skin and gut health, am I right?
Organ meats can encompass a huge range of proteins, like liver, kidney, tripe, heart, or even brain! Organ meats are the most concentrated source of vitamins A, B12, D, E, and K; minerals like iron, magnesium, selenium, and zinc; and all 9 essential amino acids your body needs to function effectively. Organ meats also have some of the highest concentrations of naturally occurring vitamin D of any food source!
It was not that long ago that organ meat was a common dinner across the world, especially liver. Organ meat can be very cheap compared to muscle meat! Liver, in particular, is a very concentrated source of vitamin A. It’s also an important source of vitamin D, B12, copper, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, and iron (in an easily absorbable form). If you’re still disgusted by the idea of eating organ meats, you’re not alone! Try liver pills for the benefits of liver in a more conventional form.
Make a plan
When I’m trying to implement a new habit, I need to have a specific, day-by-day plan to ensure my success. Luckily, lots of very smart people have spent a lot of time creating, compiling, and researching best practices on how to eliminate nightshades. You can find full meal plans for your busy life!
Breakfast can be difficult to accommodate on the AIP, without any grains or eggs. Keep it savory must of the time to keep you full and satisfied, and don’t be afraid to incorporate “leftovers” into the most important meal of the day!
Everyone loves sandwiches, and you don’t have to worry about losing those once you’re following the AIP! Try using lettuce instead of buns, or coconut wraps! The final food hole that you need to fill is: what snacks are you going to bring on your next adventure? Is there anything you can throw in your bag, without having to meal prep for hours the night before? Not to worry! The world of AIP snacks has expanded greatly in recent years; I’m partial to our Mediterranean Lamb bars!
Scientists and other researchers are studying whether avoiding nightshades has a measurable health impact. There have been 3 major studies, each expanding on the next to create a fuller picture. A 2012 study found that bacterial growth in the gut might be linked to inflammatory and autoimmune disease. In 2014, a study showed that gut wall inflammation can affect how well the gut wall functions and that food allergies can make the gut wall more porous, causing leaky gut! In 2017, the first major study focused on AIP effectiveness found that eliminating certain foods as part of the AIP diet can improve symptoms of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). There has also been a growing interest in how the AIP can help those with rheumatoid arthritis.
If you’re interested, try keeping a food diary for a week to track how often you eat nightshades. This will help you observe trends and connect symptoms to certain foods. Some of our favorite resources for AIP and nightshade avoidance are Sarah at @thepaleomom, Tracy @wholedailylife, and Michele @thrivingonpaleo.
Zora Tabin (Founder, Mom & Healthy Snack Enthusiast)