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Nightshades have a reputation as bad actors in a variety of chronic conditions, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and IBS. But what do we really know about how these foods affect our health? At first glance, the nightshades may look like a random collection of foods that couldn’t possibly be related. However, every nightshade plant produces fruits that all sport that same adorable little green elfish hat.
The fruits of potato and tobacco plants wear the same telltale hat, but we don’t eat the fruits of those plants. Glycoalkaloids are natural pesticides produced by nightshade plants. Glycoalkaloids are bitter compounds which are found throughout the plant, but their concentrations are especially high in leaves, flowers, and unripe fruits. They are there to defend plants against bacteria, fungi, viruses, and insects. Cherries, apples, and sugar beets also contain small amounts of glycoalkaloid even though they are not nightshades. Glycoalkaloids act as invisible hand grenades.
They bind strongly to the cholesterol in the cell membranes of predators, and in so doing, they disrupt the structure of those membranes, causing cells to leak or burst open upon contact. This enzyme is responsible for breaking down acetylcholine, a vital neurotransmitter that carries signals between nerve cells and muscle cells. When this important enzyme is blocked, acetylcholine can accumulate and electrically overstimulate the predator’s muscle cells. This can lead to paralysis, convulsions, respiratory arrest, and death.
Ok, so glycoalkaloids are clearly nightmarish compounds for the cells of tiny creatures daring to munch upon nightshade plants, but what do we know about their effects on human health? Since most people believe plant compounds are good for humans, when scientists conduct experiments with plant extracts, they are more likely to look for health benefits than health risks. Glycoalkaloids have been shown to reduce inflammation in laboratory animals. This is likely due to the fact that glycoalkaloids are structurally similar to compounds called glucocorticoids, which have well-known anti-inflammatory properties.
It should also not be surprising that glycoalkaloids have been shown in laboratory studies to possess antibiotic and antiviral properties, since this is what nature designed them for. Unfortunately, they can also cause healthy non-cancerous cells to do the same thing. However, it is diﬃcult to translate the results of an in vivo trial in vitro. Therefore, both animal and human experiments are essential to conﬁrm or disprove the in vivo data observed in these studies. Glycoalkaloids cause birth defects in laboratory animals.
Due to widespread pro-plant food bias, the vast majority of scientific studies of nightshades explore their potential benefits rather than their downsides, so we do not have the studies we wish to have about how these interesting foods affect our well-being. In cases of mild glycoalkaloid poisoning symptoms include headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. Neurological symptoms were also reported, including apathy, restlessness, drowsiness, mental confusion, rambling, incoherence, stupor, hallucinations, dizziness, trembling, and visual disturbances. The largest series of solanine poisoning involved an English day school where 78 schoolboys developed diarrhea and vomiting after eating potatoes stored since the summer term. Symptoms began 7-19 hours after ingestion with vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia, and malaise.
Of the 78 boys, 17 were admitted to the hospital. Keep in mind that these reactions just happened to be recorded due to their severity. We have no documented information about how everyday consumption of nightshades affects sensitive individuals, only numerous on-line personal accounts of mental health problems such as anxiety, panic, and insomnia that were alleviated by removal of nightshades from the diet. 5 Foods Proven to Cause Anxiety and Insomnia.
Fruits vs vegetables: here we go again! Those of you who are familiar with my philosophy about plant foods know that I believe vegetables are far less trustworthy when it comes to our health than edible fruits, and nightshades make this point nicely. As you will see below, even though nightshade fruits contain glycoalkaloids, they either contain lower amounts of these potentially toxic compounds or contain gentler versions of them. Tobacco is a nightshade vegetable, but it is typically smoked, not eaten, so the only nightshade vegetable humans consume is the beloved potato. All potatoes are nightshades except for sweet potatoes and yams. Potato plants make two glycoalkaloids: alpha-chaconine and alpha-solanine. These are the most toxic glycoalkaloids found in the edible nightshade family.