Nightshade nightmares …

After being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, one of the first “facts” I ran across was that I should avoid eating foods from the nightshade family. Although nightshade is a deadly poison derived from atrope belladonna, an inedible weed, its distant relatives just happen to be potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. In Nightshade vegetablessome people, I read, they might trigger flares.

Of course I was devastated. Those are just about the only veggies I’ve ever liked, other than lettuce and green beans and corn. OK, and carrots. And maybe celery, once in a while.

Here’s the thing: I heart potatoes just about any way you can make ‘em: potato chips, mashed potatoes, spuds baked in their jackets. Fried potatoes—oh, my. Roasted taties—delectable! And there are so many, many dishes that include potatoes. How in the world could I ever cut such a humble but mighty food out of my diet?

And … tomatoes. Really??  What’s a tossed salad without tomatoes? Is a hamburger still a hamburger without a thick slice of beefsteak tomato tucked between the onion and melted cheese? You can eat a pizza without tomato-based pizza sauce, I guess (there are pizzas out there made with that white garlic sauce stuff, but they don’t really deserve the name). I prefer the traditional version, myself. And without the lovely tomato in all its many varieties, how can you eat spaghetti? Or chicken cacciatore? What would you dip your French fries in? There are entire categories of cuisine that wouldn’t exist without the humble tomato.

Then there’s eggplant—or aubergine, to you foodies out there. It’s an odd vegetable, I’ll admit that. It’s a rich, lovely purple, only vaguely resembles an egg, and it makes me giggle. But what would eggplant parmesan be without it? Just plain ol’ parmesan. Meh. What about ratatiouille, that fabulous French Provençal rat—I mean veggie dish—that was the subject of that delightful animated movie a few years back? And let’s not forget the surprisingly scrumptious Middle Eastern dish called babaganoush. Not only would we not get to say that really-fun-to-say word, but it wouldn’t even exist without eggplant.

Finally, there’s the pepper. Most Hungarian, Serbian, Italian, Chinese, Indian and Mexican dishes would be dull, bland and blah without peppers. I’m probably missing several countries that revere peppers in all their fiery grandeur, but you get my gist. What would we do—I mean, what would I do—without peppers to keep me on the straight and narrow?

So you can imagine that I was deeply, greatly, incredibly relieved to learn that I didn’t actually have to avoid eating potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers just because I had RA. There’s no hard scientific evidence that those veggies cause RA flares, or make it worse or whatever. It’s just a myth, repeated so often and by so many people that it has become a pseudo-fact.

Here’s the truth: “Nightshade” the weed (atrope belladonna), potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers are distant members of the same family, but it’s Solanaceae, not nightshade. And contrary to what alternative medicine/foods texts and websites may state, those veggies do not contain evil oxalic acid, which inhibits the absorption of calcium. Nor do they contain the toxic alkaloid compound called solanine, a defense mechanism found in some Solanaceae plants that protects  them against natural threats such as insects.

What it all comes down to is this: If “nightshade” family foods seem to trigger a flare if you eat them, then don’t eat them. Same with cake and ice cream. If it makes you hurt, avoid it. When you eat foods that have wheat gluten in them, and you flare soon afterward, well, try not eating them and see if it helps.

The fact is that in most people, most foods have little if anything to do with their rheumatoid arthritis, unless they eat too much of it and become overweight, which can place more stress on weight-bearing joints. RA is, after all, an autoimmune disease. No one knows what triggers it or what triggers its characteristic inflammatory flares. The food we eat? The weather? Mitch McConnell? Maybe all of the above?

There are foods that have been proven to be anti-inflammatory, though, and they can be beneficial when it comes to RA. Click right here to read all about them.

Bon appétit!

Editor’s Note: I’m aware that some readers will heartily disagree with this post; the belief that vegetables in the Solanaceae family (and related to nightshade) trigger arthritic flares is pervasive. I did search for solid evidence regarding the phenomena. I found a few studies, but none produced any hard scientific evidence. That said: if you find that potatoes, tomatoes, peppers or eggplants seem to trigger painful osteoarthritis or RA flares, it is always your right to avoid eating them. I’d be the last person to blame you.

14 responses to “Nightshade nightmares …

  1. Hurrah for sticking up for science … but agree with your note at the end too! :-)

    • Yep, I’m a real science fan, Penguin. I think what bothers me most about claims like this is that they create false hope–and then, when they don’t work, we tend to think it’s our own fault, somehow. I’m all for education, myself.

  2. Wren, I’m just starting on this RA journey so needed to hear from others that have traveled this road. Thats why yesterday I read EVERY post on your web site. Started at 7am finished at 11pm. I am an avid reader, guess that’s why I chose to read all of your blog. I have my first appointment with rheumy on Nov 1. Also have an appointment with a MD that is now using more natural healing methods. After researching 8 hours a day for a month and reading thousands of comments from RA sufferers that have been on EVERY med or combination of meds, I think my chances are about equal in finding relief. I can tell that all of you RA bloggers (with the exception of RA Guy and maybe One other are against any natural path) but was curious if you ever wondered why the only time you got true remission was when you took no drugs. Believe me I know all about the pain!! I just wondered if you had been under a drs care and had controll of pain and inflammation if you might have tried another course. But I guess since you don’t have most of the serious side effects others suffer, you might not be inclined to go down that road. In the mean time I will listen to both sides and continue to educate myself but in the end I know I will choose to listen to me! Thank you so much for your writing, your honesty and your love of your furry friends. We may not end up traveling the same path but the love of our “beasties” will be a true connection!!

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Kay. And wow–you read my whole blog?? I salute your persistence and commend your thirst for knowledge. I remember very clearly how baffled and frequently frightened I was in my early days with RA. Learning to live with the disease when you’ve never had anything even remotely like it before in your life is a huge challenge. I’m glad you’re doing everything you can to learn about it.

      I took NSAIDs and a couple of DMARDs–gold and plaquenil–during the first six years or so after my diagnosis. None of them did the slightest bit of good, so after returning to the U.S. I stopped taking RA medications except for what I was able to get OTC, like ibuprofen and Aleve (naproxin). Not that they did any good, either… Anyway, I don’t want you to think that after I stopped taking meds my RA went into remission. It didn’t. I continued to have a great deal of pain and disability for another seven years or so. And when my RA did go into remission, it was slowly and very subtly. Eventually I realised that I hadn’t had a flare in a long time… wow! I was very pleased, as you can imagine. Even so, I never really relaxed. I knew the RA could come back at any moment, and that it wasn’t really gone. More like it was sleeping.

      When it did return, it was just as subtly. But as the pain slowly became more frequent and, slowly, more intense, I decided I couldn’t just do nothing about it anymore. Frankly, I was scared of having terrible flares like I’d had in the past. So I went to a rheumatologist. And I’m convinced today that if I hadn’t, my RA would be many times worse than it is right now. Because of the meds I take, its progress has been slowed way down. Yes, I still have pain. Yes, I still have the disease–but I always will. There is no cure for RA (yet). At least with the many new meds available today, it’s possible to control RA and keep the pain and disability down to a manageable level–a level one can live with.

      I respect your wanting to deal with your RA naturally, and that is certainly your right. Some people do very well that way–take a look at Cathy’s blog, “The LIfe and Adventures of Cateepoo” http://thelifeandadventuresofcatepoo.blogspot.com/
      She’s had long experience with very active, very painful RA, and has tried both meds and no meds while making lifestyle changes such as eating a natural diet, etc. She finally decided on a blend of treatments–some meds, plenty of natural changes–and has reached, if not remission, a great level of comfort. You can learn a lot from her. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a very nice person! :)

      Best of luck to you. I hope your RA will soon be under control and that your pain will never be more than you can handle. We are incredibly strong people–and stronger because we choose to educate ourselves about our disease. Consider yourself hugged–and come back anytime! :D

  3. Enjoyable post! To Kay’s point, the path is different for each of us. For some, the natural path works. For many of us, we need help from medical science. As each of us have those things that trigger an allergic reaction, I’m sure we all have substances that can aggravate our RA. The trick is to pay attention to our bodies and be nice to ourselves as we seek the right individual treatment plan.

    • So very true, Carla. It’s always best to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us, keeping in mind that what they say can be quite subtle and easy to miss. And it’s a good idea to pay attention to what’s been proven to help, too: A healthy diet, keeping our weight down so as to decrease the pressure and wear on weight-bearing joints, and exercising gently to retain range of motion and strong muscles.
      Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’re feeling well!

  4. I changed my diet mainly to eliminate gluten, dairy and processed sugars. I eat gluten free, but I still have some dairy, mainly yogurt and cheese (but no huge amounts). I have noticed a difference in how I feel since going this route. However, I still eat most of the food I enjoy, and I simply monitor how it makes me feel in the end. If it triggers a bad reaction or a flare, then I know to keep my distance. What’s that saying? Everything in moderation. :)

    • Smart grrrrl! Sounds like you’ve come up with a good plan, JG. And that old saying, “everything in moderation” has to be the truest truism ever coined. It fits not only RA treatment, but life.

      I hope all is well for you and that the old lady is being sleepy and kind today.

  5. I love this post! Thank you so much!! I’m always annoyed reading about how diet changes are miracle cures for everyone, when we know it really varies. I know how food affects me- too much citrus fruits makes me feel more inflammation- but it’s not a rule of anything. I still eat citrus, just not too much. Everyone is so different, the results will always vary! Thanks for shining some light on that. :)

    -Arthritis Girl

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! It’s good to see you here! I think you’ve nailed it: “everyone is so different, the results will always vary.” It’s true. It makes sense to pay attention to what foods bother your RA. If any do then either stay away from them or go easy on them. I don’t know of any foods that affect my old rheuma-dragon directly, but I do know that if I eat too much and gain weight, he’s much grouchier…

      Do take care–and keep writing your wonderful blog! http://arthritisgirl.blogspot.com/ It’s one of the most informative and pleasant-to-read blogs out there, IMHO. I hope this finds you feeling well and enjoying the beauties of the season. :)

  6. Don’t ask me for the reference or the fine detail (though I’m sure I could find it given time) but a controlled study was done using a very strict and quite extreme basically vegan diet to see if it made any difference to RA joint pain. It wasn’t a massive population but they found over a year or so, about half of patients who were able to stick to this diet did experience a massive improvement in joint pain which occurred quite quickly and lasted for the duration of the diet. As soon as even small amounts of dairy or animal protein (and fish) was reintroduced the pain returned.
    The diet was very strict, obviously difficult to adhere to long term – I think the patients had stuff provided for them – and for most people would require too much commitment from all sides, doing their shopping, food preparation, social life and so on. Because it was so restricted there were concerns about nutrients long term – the patients were given supplements I think and monitored and of course protein supply eventually becomes a problem if you aren’t careful.

    I imagine under fairly close medical supervision it would be fine if you it appealed to you – after all, there are many vegans who are perfectly healthy – but I don’t think it is something to try without a great deal of basic knowledge that is correct. I read an article yesterday in the UK’s Daily Mail (aka the People’s Medical Journal ;-) ) from a 30 year-old claiming not to have eaten anything cooked for 7 years, who says she is often told she looks 10 years younger, and who when asked about protein intake replied she ate “loads of spinach for protein”. Unless things have changed since I did biology it doesn’t have a lot!

    From my own point of view, I was eating pretty much gluten-free when my PMR started (I’m allergic to something in highly processed commercially produced wheat, not the gluten I don’t think, something else and it makes me ITCH – if I don’t eat wheat I’m fine) and tried the “no nightshades” and it made no difference at all – I just got bored. We have had the born-again vegans on our forum and the people who believe a snake oil salesman who is making megabucks out of them who say it has made a massive difference – maybe it has, or maybe they have invested so much in it they can’t/won’t admit to it not having worked. I’m absolutely with you Elizabeth – report it worked for you (maybe) but don’t get all iffy with me when I’m sceptical.

    The latest on our forum is turmeric – someone has just started taking capsules and claims she has had no pain since she started. One lady said one of her doctors had told her in his experience it can be as effective an antiinflammatory as pred. She uses it in her cooking regularly – but it is something that doesn’t fit in our eating style. I know it has been used traditionally – but you’d think if it is that good someone would have tried it out wouldn’t you?

    • And there’s the rub, Eileen. The “don’t eat nightshade veggies and your arthritis will be much better!” claim is just one of so many miracle remedies for this odd, incurable disease. And I always wonder why, if that really was the case, doesn’t medical science tell us to avoid those malicious vegetables? If there was definitive proof, I think they would. I wish it was as easy as that to do away with the pain and trauma those of us with rheumatic diseases face every day. If copper bracelets were the answer, they’d be prescribed–and you bet your britches the things would cost far more than $5.99 in your local drugstore. (And they’d have found a way to keep the copper from turning your skin green!)

      Thanks for writing another excellent and thought-provoking comment. I always look forward to reading them–I learn something new from you every time. I hope you’re feeling well… :)

  7. I too love night shade veggies and eat them regularly. No flares either! I really believe, just as with traditional meds, some will find nightshades to be fine and some won’t. Unfortunately all of this ra stuff seems to be trial and error until we each find what works best for us! Hope all is well in your corner of the world.

    I have one of my children moving back home this week due to loss of a job. And my two boobies (kitties) had a hair raising cat fight. Had to separate them for three days but they are all lovie dovie now. I was worried if they didn’t get back together what I would do.

    Hoping things are going OK with you in your corner of the world!

  8. Things are going pretty decent in my corner of the world, Deb. Hey, I’ve missed your “voice” out here in the blogosphere–I hope you’ve been feeling okay. I hear a teensy bit of consternation regarding your son moving home, and I surely understand it. My daughter and her significant other have been living with me and Mr Wren for several years now, unable to find work that pays them enough to cover rent, etc and/or find work at all. It’s a rough time for nearly everyone, I guess.

    Mom and I have three cats living with us: Mouse, Kitty-Kitty and Emma. Emma and Mouse hate each other, so they’ve marked up territories. Emma lives upstairs, Mouse down, and never the twain shall meet. I’m not sure what we’ll do when Mom’s house sells and we have to move. I’m saving that worry for if and when it comes.

    My best wishes to you, Deb. And glad to hear from you again! :D