Can You Eat Nightshades If You Have Arthritis?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on March 23, 2017Written by Kirsten Schofield

Overview

When you get diagnosed with arthritis, it's tempting to rush to the internet to learn as much information as you can. With so much conflicting information available, it's hard to know your best course of action. For example, it's common to see advice against eating the plant family called nightshades. But is there any truth to the claim that they should be avoided? Experts remain unsure.

“The role of diet in either causing arthritis or making arthritis better is still unclear. Certainly, the role of nightshade vegetables is controversial,” says Dr. Nathan Wei, a Maryland-based rheumatologist.

Jonathan Steele, a registered nurse, agrees: “There are no high-level studies or low-level studies [on nightshades and their connection to arthritis]. The reports are anecdotal.”

“Some clients have gotten relief when eliminating these from their diets and lifestyle. Likewise, some clients did not experience any relief when these were eliminated,” says Philadelphia doctor of naturopathy Julia Scalise.

All three experts agree that there's likely a diet-related component to managing arthritis-related pain in some circumstances. However, avoiding nightshades isn't a hard-and-fast rule for everyone.

Understanding nightshades

Nightshades are a family of plants genetically related to the potato. They include:

  • white potatoes, but not sweet potatoes
  • tomatoes
  • okra
  • eggplants
  • peppers
  • goji berries

Surprisingly enough, petunias and tobacco are also members of the nightshade family.

You can find nightshades in sneaky places, such as capsaicin creams, spice blends, or potato starch thickeners. They even lurk in some types of alcohol, such as vodka.

Nightshades contain an alkaloid called solanine. Some people believe its presence can cause inflammation of the joints, though research is not definitive.

Nightshade allergies aren't uncommon, but they're not widespread, either. If you suspect you have an allergy or intolerance to nightshades, talk to an allergist. There’s no reliable test for this allergy, so they may ask you to try an elimination diet.

Potential benefits of nightshades

Are there benefits to eating nightshades if you have arthritis? According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Nutrition, yes. The presence of antioxidants, water, and vitamins in pigmented potatoes (such as purple or yellow ones) actually has an anti-inflammatory effect. This effect can help ease joint pain.

Most of the fruits and vegetables that fall under the nightshade umbrella can be part of a healthy diet if you eat them in moderation. So feel free to keep tomatoes and peppers on the menu. Do avoid green potatoes, which contain the highest levels of solanine. They’re more likely to cause symptoms.

“There are foods that we do think can aggravate arthritis,” says Wei. “An example might be red meat, which contains fatty acids that provoke inflammation.” Wei recommends sticking to foods that have proven anti-inflammatory properties, such as:

  • fish
  • flaxseed
  • brightly colored fruits and veggies (including nightshades)

Still, eating a healthy diet, maintaining your weight, and getting regular exercise are his top lifestyle tips for keeping arthritis symptoms at bay.

Learn more: Foods that reduce inflammation »

Side effects of eating nightshades

Unless you’re intolerant to nightshades, you generally won’t have any side effects from eating them.

If you are sensitive to nightshades, reactions often result in inflammation, which has a big impact on people with certain kinds of arthritis. It may take up to a day or two to occur. Stomach and digestive symptoms may also occur.

Work with your doctor and dietitian to plan a new diet if it turns out you're intolerant to tomatoes, eggplants, and other nightshades.

Understanding arthritis

There are dozens of kinds of arthritis, and they come with their own unique symptoms, causes, and risk factors. However, they all cause joint pain and fatigue. Arthritis affects over 50 million adults in the United States, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Over 43 percent of American adults with arthritis report that their daily activities are affected by the condition. So it's a condition many people share.

“Arthritis comes in a few flavors: Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common, with psoriatic coming in at third,” says North Carolina neuro-chiropractor Dr. Jason Nardi. Nardi notes that osteoarthritis is generally caused by wear and tear on the joints over time, but rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis are more likely to be aggravated by inflammation.

Most forms of arthritis will cause chronic pain in the joints, but the severity of that pain will differ from person to person. Many people with arthritis also report chronic fatigue. If you're diagnosed with arthritis or have an arthritis-related health concern, contact your doctor about available treatment options.

Causes of arthritis

“Many types of arthritis have a genetic basis,” says Wei. “Examples include rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis where there is a genetic predisposition.” Other types, such as gout, are the result of acid buildup in the joints. There are many reasons people get arthritis, so no one should consider themselves completely immune.

Learn more: What causes arthritis? »

Risk factors of arthritis

There are two kinds of arthritis risk factors: the kind you can control and the kind you can't. You can't control your age, gender, or genes, but you can control how your genes are expressed. Lifestyle factors, such as your environment, activity level, and diet, can influence which genes are activated and which genes remain silent.

You can control other factors, too. The CDC cites injuries, repetitive motions at work, and obesity as other risk factors of arthritis. If you’re experiencing arthritis-related pain, talk to your doctor about strategies for managing your risk factors.

Diagnosing arthritis

There is no single test for diagnosing arthritis. Some forms are diagnosed with a blood test, while others can be diagnosed with a doctor’s consultation. If you have symptoms and some of the noted risk factors, talk to your doctor about getting a diagnosis for arthritis.

Treatment and prevention

Most doctors advocate one of the following treatments or a combination of all four:

Some people may find a great deal of relief with massage and a better diet, while others might require extensive surgery. Talk to your doctor about your best treatment options, and make a plan together to manage your arthritis.

Different kinds of arthritis require different approaches, and each person's experience will vary. There isn't a surefire way to prevent yourself from developing arthritis. As always, the best medicine is prevention, so take care of your body and listen to it.

Takeaway

Eliminating nightshades from your diet isn't a cure-all for arthritis, but it may help some people. Talk with your doctor to figure out the right way to manage the pain and fatigue brought on by arthritis. Consider working with a dietitian before starting an elimination diet. They can help you identify if you are sensitive to the nightshade family. In the meantime, take care of your body by eating healthfully and exercising regularly.

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