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I HATE tomatoes - guiding symptom or silly anecdote in arthritis?

Red tomatoes. Credit Shutterstock  ID: 500371432
Red tomatoes. Credit Shutterstock ID: 500371432

How listening to one's body can provide clues to its inner biochemistry and the potential connections between nightshade vegetables, other food triggers and inflammatory joint disease.

I would like to share a story about myself as a child and a picky eater. I was recently relating this memory to a friend who to my surprise found it extremely funny. That got me thinking how something so seemingly silly and apparently trivial, because of its funny weirdness has turned out to be a guiding symptom in my personal health journey.

This story is also a good metaphor for how I work with my clients. My methods include unprejudiced observation, keen listening and a holistic inclusive and personalised approach to solving chronic diseases. My curiosity for the truth helps me to always keep an open mind ... with one eye on the proven science and the other on the anecdotes.

The little girl who hated red

Here’s the story... When I was little, I hated the colour red. The reason why I hated red was because I hated tomatoes. I would not wear red and I refused to eat tomatoes. It was with a kind of childish, irrational and unbridled revulsion that I avoided tomatoes. Much later in my twenties, I borrowed a friend’s beautiful red dress for a family wedding… and for the first time actually loved wearing the colour! The same however cannot be said about my continued uneasy relationship with tomatoes.

Young blond girl smiling with infographic about hating the colour red Credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplaceint
The little girl who hated red. Credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplaceint

Tomatoes and nightshade vegetables

Let’s be rational for a minute and look at what we know about tomatoes…

Tomatoes (Solanum Lycopersicum) belong to the nightshade family of plants which also includes vegetables like peppers (bell, cayenne and paprika), eggplant, potatoes (white), tobacco and some other inedible, toxic plants. I also incidentally struggled to like/eat these above-mentioned vegetables (except potatoes - because honestly who can say no to a potato chip?).

As a picky eater and the girl who hated red I had no idea of plant and human biochemistry. But here’s what I discovered subsequently as a homoeopath, functional medicine practitioner and health seeker looking for solutions for my own chronic pain…

Nightshade vegetables contain chemicals called alkaloids which are toxic in high doses and which some people apparently find difficult to digest in food doses. Is it possible that the bitter-tasting alkaloid Solanine, which has been isolated from all nightshade vegetables, is responsible for my otherwise irrational and unexplained childhood aversion and for aggravating my joints as a young and unaware adult?

Picky eaters: the supertasters and canaries?

With this in mind, picky eaters could be seen in a whole new light. They could in fact be 'supertasters' and 'canaries in a coalmine', meaning that they are highly sensitive to bitter tastes and certain foods (and other environmental toxins) that may in fact be harmful to them. I have done a webinar and written a blog on this subject 'Why is my child a picky eater?'. If you are a parent and would like to know more about this topic and my unique approach, please click on the above-hyperlinked text.

At this moment there is no academically conclusive evidence that nightshade vegetables are bad for us or cause health problems like arthritis. Of course, tomatoes also contain many nutrients including the anti-oxidant Lycopene. So no blanket recommendations are generally made to avoid these vegetables when you visit your family doctor with joint pain.

In fact, the relationship between food triggers in general and inflammation is not considered. Instead, the evidence from patients reporting aggravations from certain foods is mostly seen as anecdotal in general medicine. The opposite is often true when you consult a homoeopathic practitioner. Could it be that my intense dislike of tomatoes from as early as I can remember and later developed of chronic inflammation and joint pain are connected?

Canary in a modern coalmine infographic describing how toxins in modern world can affect sensitive people. Credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplaceint
Canary in a modern coalmine infographic. Credit: Nicole Cullinan @wellnessplaceint

The canaries in a modern coalmine

Current medicine does however caution certain vulnerable population groups about consuming vegetables from the nightshade family. These are people with inflammatory or autoimmune conditions like arthritis, psoriasis and possibly inflammatory bowel disease because they have an inherent tendency or genetic penchant to low-grade inflammation. This group of 'canaries' may in fact benefit from reducing or avoiding nightshade vegetables and other inflammatory triggers. So perhaps there is a grain of truth in my silly story of the girl who hated red?

Conventional medicine disregards the strange, rare and peculiar

There is a recurring theme of symptom disregard for individuals with chronic illnesses and especially those belonging to immunologically vulnerable populations. They are frequently treated with disdain and their silly stories disregarded by the conventional care mindset and toolkit. Because certain symptoms defy categorisation by the medical model, should they be disregarded as unimportant?

Homoeopathy another paradigm of categorisation

In homoeopathy, one of the guiding symptoms in a case is called the ‘strange rare and peculiar symptom’. All symptoms are relevant but not all symptoms have equal weighting or have equal importance in a given case of chronic illness. Many times in practice an apparent anomalous symptom has turned out to be a guiding symptom. A guiding symptom can lead you to find personalised health solutions including symptom relief and optimal health or as I like to put it, finding your 'wellness place'.

Tomatoes and strawberries, the biochemical plot thickens...

Allergic reactions to tomatoes and strawberries are common. As it so happens, I also react to strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa) ...which are also red. These I love but unfortunately, they don’t love me in return and cause my joints to swell and be painfully stiff. My mother remembers me first getting a rash as a small child from eating strawberries and my refusal to eat strawberries as well as tomatoes. Coincidentally (or not) I remember even my daughter getting a rash when I ate strawberries as I was still breastfeeding her. Since living in the Netherlands, I have eaten more Dutch strawberries than in my whole life previously before making this connection between this intake and a new frequency of my joint pain.

Here is some more science...It turns out that there is common immune cross-reactivity between the allergenic proteins from some varieties of tomatoes and strawberries. I only discovered this when doing background research for this story although my body was clearly already privy to this connection.

Fast-forward forty years from the girl who hated red, I eat the occasional organic strawberry, still, very rarely eat raw tomatoes and struggle with a continued, instinctive aversion to all nightshade vegetables. Red is not my favourite colour but I do have a classic red dress that I wear on Valentine's day!

How I work

Here’s to a kind wellness care approach committed to unprejudiced observation, true listening and personalisation. We are all individual and unique in our health needs and can benefit from an inclusive and human approach to problem-solving in the care of chronic health conditions.

For more info about a wellness care approach, book a free discovery call with me.…/free-meet-greet-chat

If you want more nutrition and self-care know-how like this, go to my website and subscribe to my newsletter.

Until next time, take care - our community is also our immunity!

Nicole Dawson Cullinan



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