Nightshades and Our Wellness

July 18, 2023

I have lived a vegan, macrobiotic lifestyle for more than forty years. I came to this lifestyle through severe illness and using a rather rigid approach to eating, was able to turn my health around and enjoy the robust wellness I do today. I am forever grateful to this way of life, forever grateful.

In my forty years since, however, I discovered (sometimes the very hard way), that the restrictive way I was eating was not, in fact, the world’s perfect diet, but a method to be used to regain strength, stamina and wellness. It took me nearly two decades to figure that out (I can be a slow learner).

This is in no way and indictment of macrobiotic teachings, but of my own misunderstanding of the power of food and how to use it to create, regain and maintain wellness.

As the years marched on and both my husband and I struggled with various conditions, major and minor, I finally began to question what was up. We came to the conclusion that not everything our ancestors did was wrong or inappropriate. They knew what they knew and used food as medicine, so why was I shunning their wisdom simply because I wasn’t born into the wisdom of ancient China or Japan?

When I made that connection, the world opened up to me. I began what we started to call the Macroterranean Way in our house and blended the wisdom of both cultures to create the diet that has served us for quite some time now. Will it change again? Maybe, but for now, the way we eat has us loving life and our robust health.

So why am I telling you this long, boring story? When I was growing up, my Italian family revered tomatoes and grew them in all shapes and sizes in their garden (along with eggplant, peppers, zucchini, carrots, winter squash, figs, apples and anything else they could fit in their small city space). We cooked them; jarred them; fried them; marinated them; baked them into breads.

When I began my macrobiotic practice, tomatoes and other nightshade vegetables were to be avoided. With my health on the line, I followed the rules.

Years later, as a teacher always faced with this question, I decided to try to figure out what was up with nightshades and their impact on our wellness. And this being the height of tomato season, what time could be better, right?

So buckle up.

The Solanaceae, also known as the deadly nightshade family is one of humankind’s most utilized plant families, containing some of the world’s most important food plants, such as the potato, tomato, all peppers, tomatillo and eggplant. It also includes a suite of deadly toxic plants represented by belladonna, mandrake, Jimson weed, henbane, and tobacco. Some of these have a long history with shamanism and witchcraft in the past, so they carry the baggage of superstition as well as science.

Rich in potent psychoactive alkaloids, it is a group of plants with an intense mix of desirable and toxic compounds referred to as the “tropane alkaloids” which include nicotine, solanine, capsaicin, atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine: all compounds that have been used as healing drugs in small doses, misunderstood or abused as addictive drugs, and employed as pesticides and warfare agents (think sarin) when utilized in toxic doses. There are also beneficial compounds here too (think capsaicin).

Wow, right?

With the science in mind, it becomes clear that there was more to a tomato (or eggplant, pepper or potato) and we thought.

The question seems to have always been, are these healthy foods to have in your otherwise healthy diet?

The answer is…maybe.

Europeans thought potatoes were poisonous when they first arrived from Peru. And they weren’t totally wrong; all parts of the plant except the tuber are poisonous. When Europeans began to accept tomatoes from the New World as food, they thought they had to be thoroughly cooked to make them safe for human consumption; also not totally wrong.

Today, superstition still surrounds this plant family, some of it simply rooted in fear of medical danger. And some in fact. It’s true from a macrobiotic viewpoint that nightshades are by their nature, expansive or yin which is believed to be problematic for some conditions, like arthritis and bone health.

In reality, it’s a very small number of arthritis sufferers that are nightshade sensitive, and they may realize some benefit by eliminating all foods containing these vegetables. Also, if someone’s condition is overall more ‘yin’ or expansive, eating these plants may make them feel cold or weak. In my view, that should be taken as a sign to improve your strength and stamina so that you have the freedom to one day enjoy foods freely.

If you look at the cultures in the Mediterranean who enjoy the nightshades with no (or very few) ill effects, then you have to look at how they ‘process’ them before eating.

Growing up, we never ate large tomatoes unless they were cooked or marinated in olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to mitigate any “acita” (indigestion) that we might get from them.

Potatoes were always small and less sugary (like our fingerlings or new potatoes) and roasted in the oven with olive oil and rosemary to reduce their impact on my father’s arthritic knees.

Peppers were roasted and peeled and eggplant is soaked in salted water to neutralize their acids and alkaloids before they are used in any recipes.

Some people believe nightshades are responsible for inflammation, but honestly, there are very few scientific studies that support this idea; instead speaking about their many benefits and nutrient-density. The Arthritis Foundation says these nutrient-rich vegetables and fruit are worthy additions to your diet.

However, if you suspect that they trigger or worsen pain, experts suggest eliminating them for a couple of weeks, then reintroducing them slowly to see if, in fact, they are the causes. If this experiment reveals that consuming these foods increases arthritis pain, weakness or compromises digestion, take them off the menu. They’re nutrient-dense to be sure, but so are so many other vegetables and fruit. Just move on.

In the end, as I often say, there’s not a vegetable or fruit on earth that will kill you, so choose according to your health and wellness and how you feel when you eat any food. Don’t blindly follow anyone’s advice. If you feel great; enjoy good health, free of illness; have stamina; get through your days with joy and energy, should you give up tomatoes? Only you can decide, but I think you know my answer.