Do you ever experience unexplained symptoms like a runny nose, nasal congestions, hives, flushing, migraines, wheezing, low blood pressure, heart skipping a beat, or any other symptom commonly associated with allergies? Typically, these symptoms can be linked to exposure to an allergen. But, for some, they seem to be inexplicable. When this is the case, dietary histamine could be the culprit.
What is Histamine?
Histamine is a compound found throughout the body that helps the immune system get rid of things that it sees as harmful. This reaction is a part of the body’s normal defense system. However, this may sometimes cause our bodies to react to harmless substances. Hence the reaction many of us get when we are exposed to certain triggers, like pollen, dust, and pet dander. In the body, most histamine is stored in the mast cells. When an allergen is detected, histamine is released into the blood. Watery eyes, runny nose, and itchy skin are some of the ways that our body tries to get rid of the triggers it perceives as a threat. Beyond its role in immunity and allergies, histamine is also important for other vital bodily functions. It acts as a neurotransmitter that promotes cognitive function and mental alertness; this is why antihistamines often make us feel like we need a nap. It is also needed for the production of gastric juices for normal digestion.
Although histamine is normal and present in all tissues, sometimes the histamine burden in the body can become too much. Many of the foods in our diet contain histamine or interfere with the normal breakdown of histamine. Think of your body’s pool of histamine like a bucket. When there is a normal amount, everything works well and there are no symptoms. However, when the bucket gets too full and starts to overflow, you get nasal congestion, headaches, hives, etc for seemingly no reason. Under normal circumstances, these dietary histamines are predominately broken down by an enzyme in our gut known as diamine oxidase (DAO). For many individuals with histamine intolerance, this enzyme is lacking. Because the body doesn’t have adequate amounts of the DAO enzyme, dietary histamine is absorbed from the gut instead of being broken down. This histamine coming from the gut is added to the normal amount in the body’s “bucket” and causes it to overflow, triggering these uncomfortable symptoms.
A number of factors can cause an individual’s histamine intolerance to decrease. Certain foods can block DAO, like alcohol, tomatoes, beans, and bananas. Other foods contain high levels of histamine, like fermented foods, and can overburden the body’s ability to clear it. However, most individuals with normal gut function should be able to handle these foods. Some may have a genetic predisposition that causes them to produce too little DAO. For others, gut health issues, like IBS, SIBO, and ulcers can block or lower production of DAO. Also, certain medications can interfere with DAO, such as NSAIDS, acid-blockers, and immunosuppressants.
How To Find Relief If You Have A Histamine Intolerance
For the histamine intolerant, many lists can be found online of “low histamine” foods. Doing a low histamine diet for a time can be beneficial. But, because such a wide range of foods contain histamine, this type of diet can be extremely difficult. Remember, you are worried about how full your histamine “bucket” is getting. So, even if you eat only low to medium histamine foods, depending on the amounts you eat, you could still reach overflow and thus have a reaction. Nonetheless, Until you find another method of supplementing, gut healing, or increasing your DAO production, doing some form of a low histamine diet will be your best option. Here is a link to a shopping list that shows low, medium, and high histamine foods.
This list does not mention fermented foods, which can be some of the biggest offenders because some of the bacteria in them produce histamines. So, all fermented foods, like aged cheeses, wine, sauerkraut, and kombucha should be significantly reduced or avoided while on a low histamine diet. Focusing on the freshest food possible is also vital. The longer a food sits, the more histamine it will contain. You may find that a meal you tolerated at dinner may not be as well received when you try to eat the leftovers the next day.
Understanding Your Histamine Intolerance
The cause of your histamine intolerance will determine the method you use to increase your tolerance. If you have gut permeability, certain supplements, like glutamine can be beneficial for healing the gut lining. If your DAO production is low, certain nutrients like vitamin C, B6, magnesium, zinc, and manganese may be of some help. There are also DAO supplements that can be used to help digest histamine when the body cannot. These can be taken with each meal or taken only with higher histamine meals, depending on the individual’s needs. These supplements need to be taken with food because they will only work to digest the histamine in the gut at the time they are taken; the enzyme won’t be stored and used later.
Probiotics And Histamine
Probiotics are a mixed bag regarding histamine intolerance. Some of them can help break down histamine. Others produce histamine, making the issue much worse. These histamine-producing strains are commonly found in probiotic supplements. They aren’t necessarily “bad” bacteria, and for many, they hold benefits. But, for someone suffering from histamine intolerance, these bacteria can exacerbate the symptoms. Some strains that produce substantial amounts of histamine are: Lactobacillus Casei, Lactobacillus Bulgaricus, and Lactobacillus Rheuteri. In most multi-strain probiotics, these strains are found mixed in with other histamine reducing and histamine neutral strains because, for the general population, a diverse probiotic supplement is optimal for digestive and immune health.
While the research is currently limited, some probiotics have been found to help degrade histamine. These include Lactobacillus Plantarum, Lactobacillus Rhamnosus gg, Bifidobacterium Infantis, and Bifidobacterium Longum. Although gut diversity is important in healthy individuals with normal histamine tolerance, individuals with compromised gastrointestinal tracts who are histamine intolerant may find more benefit from rotating through single strain probiotics containing histamine degrading bacteria, at least until histamine tolerance is regained.
To summarize, histamine intolerance is a multifaceted issue and recovering histamine tolerance can be a long, drawn-out road. It is best to work with an integrative health care practitioner who can map out a low histamine diet for you and can recommend appropriate supplements.