A histamine intolerance can often look or feel similar to a food intolerance. Despite having the term “histamine intolerance,” it is not a “reaction to histamine.” Histamine is a chemical that is naturally produced in your body for protection against allergens. Also, histamines are part of normal digestive and neurological processes. Our bodies can produce histamine on their own, however, we can also get histamines from certain foods. When we have too much histamine in our body, we start having annoying symptoms like runny nose, headaches, sinus congestion, sleepiness and possible digestion issues. Luckily, those who are concerned that they have too much histamine built up can trial dietary modifications to see if their symptoms improve.
What is histamine?
Most of us think of histamine as the immune chemical associated with allergy, but it has lots of other important functions in the body too, including communicating with the brain, triggering the release of stomach acid, and dilating blood vessels to lower blood pressure.
Why is histamine important?
We all need histamine, especially when we graze a knee or suffer a bee sting. That’s because histamine initiates the immune response that helps deal with injuries and fight infection.
Histamine is found throughout the body, but is mainly stored in special immune cells, called mast cells and basophils. It performs its role by attaching to receptors at key sites throughout the body.
When is histamine a problem?
Histamine can be a problem when levels get too high or we can’t break it down properly, at this point it can start to affect our normal bodily functions. This may lead to allergy-like symptoms, including itching, sneezing, headaches, joint pain, irritable bowel and nausea. You may not experience all of these symptoms all of the time, but as histamine accumulates its likely you’ll find your symptoms worsen. This condition which is often referred to as 'histamine intolerance' has a number of underlying mechanisms, and there is no reliable test to confirm a diagnosis.
Which health conditions are associated with excess histamine?
There are a number of conditions associated with high histamine for example high levels may cause or worsen headaches and brain fog, lead to anxiety, insomnia, hives, bloating and nasal congestion, as well as worsen menstrual symptoms including pre-menstrual syndrome and period pain.
Interestingly, studies suggest histamine intolerance may be more common in women, especially those at mid-life. This is because histamine levels are likely to increase at ovulation or just before your period, when levels are influenced by fluctuating hormones, most notably levels of oestrogen.
Histamine intolerance is unlike other allergies or sensitivities because it is not a reaction to the histamine itself but to the fact that we’ve too much of it. This makes recognising and managing the condition very difficult. Whether you experience symptoms or not will also depend on whether your personal tolerance to the amount of histamine in your body has been breached. Often referred to as your histamine ‘bucket’, once this capacity is met and exceeded, your bucket starts to overflow and symptoms become more challenging.
There are numerous factors that influence how full your histamine ‘bucket’ might be. These include your genes, certain medication you might be taking, your diet, the time of year, nutritional deficiencies, stress levels, your hormones, gut health and the environment, including whether you suffer from environmental allergies like pollen, dust mites etc.
Understanding the limits of your own histamine ‘bucket’ is important and explains why on one day you may be able to enjoy a bowl of strawberries with your breakfast and on another it triggers symptoms.
One of the most useful tools in assessing whether your symptoms are that of histamine intolerance is to follow a low-histamine diet. This should not be considered a long-term treatment option, because following any restrictive diet is unlikely to be nutritionally appropriate for the longer term.
Eating Seasonally contains lower histamine levels
A diet focused on fresh, minimally processed foods with few preserved or fermented products naturally contains less histamine.
Many foods contain high histamine levels. If the body is unable to break down this chemical adequately, it can lead to a diverse range of symptoms, which are often gastrointestinal.
Managing a histamine intolerance tends to involve making dietary changes, taking antihistamines or enzyme supplements, and avoiding or limiting the use of medications that trigger the release of histamine.
Ideally, work with a nutritionist to minimise foods that are high in histamine or histamine-releasing. Using a food diary, record your reaction to foods as you slowly reintroduce them, while carefully assessing your tolerance levels and considering other relevant factors. Over time and guided by your dietician, you’ll be able to establish a long-term eating plan that is balanced and appropriate for your needs.
Keeping a food diary helps identify problem foods and pinpoint preparation and cooking methods that may need to be adapted. It can be quite revealing and may even suggest some foods, such as those considered healthy, may be adding to your histamine load.
To help get you started, here are some common foods and their likely histamine effects. You should be aware that histamine levels may vary, so this is given for guidance only:
How can I manage my histamine levels?
In the first instance, eliminating alcohol, dairy and fermented foods may be helpful, because these foods are typically high in histamine and some promote the release of histamine. Other foods block the activity of the enzyme involved in breaking down histamine, so these should also be avoided or minimised, including caffeinated drinks.
A lot of sufferers turn to antihistamine medication to block histamine activity and relieve their symptoms, but it’s worth highlighting that these drugs don’t actually reduce your histamine load although you may benefit from symptom relief.
There are also some nutrients and plant compounds that act as natural antihistamines, and so inhibit the build-up of histamine. These include vitamins C and D, quercetin, bromelain and curcumin. Some people find including foods rich in these nutrients helps. Certain other nutrients support the activity of the diamine oxidase (DAO) enzyme, that’s the enzyme which breaks down histamine, these include the B vitamins, such as B6, and minerals including copper, zinc and manganese.
What can I do today?
Here are some practical steps you can put in place straight away:
Buy and cook from fresh, shopping little and often - the fresher your food, the less histamine it is likely to contain. Cook from fresh whenever possible, rather than using leftovers or prepared foods. Freeze leftovers for use another day rather than storing them in the fridge.
Look at your lifestyle – for example, if environmental allergens are relevant for you, minimise your exposure.
Aim to manage stress levels, and explore which forms and levels of exercise are beneficial for you, because this can vary.
If you're experiencing a hormonal shift, for example puberty or perimenopause, and are experiencing symptoms suggestive of a histamine intolerance, refer to your GP for guidance.
If you are considering attempting any form of change to your normal eating plan, please consult a trusted nutritionist.
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