Histamine intolerance: Could it be responsible for your health problems?

By naturopath Margaret Jasinska

Histamine is a chemical produced in your body and related to immune system function. You have probably heard of histamine in relation to allergies and the use of antihistamine medication. Histamine actually performs a range of important functions in your body, including healthy digestion and nervous system function. It is required for the production of stomach acid and it is a neurotransmitter (brain chemical).

If something like an allergy or insect sting irritates your immune system, histamine causes your blood vessels to dilate, enabling your white blood cells to quickly find and attack the problem. A build up of histamine can give you a headache and leave you feeling flushed, itchy and tired.

This is a normal part of your body’s natural immune response, but if you don’t break down histamine properly, you can develop histamine intolerance. This can cause a range of varied symptoms. It is actually quite a common cause of continuing health problems in people who eat well.

The most common symptoms of histamine intolerance include:

  • Headaches or migraines
  • Anxiety
  • Problems falling asleep, or having very light, broken sleep
  • Dizziness
  • High blood pressure
  • Abnormally fast heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Disrupted menstrual cycle
  • Facial flushing, especially after just one glass of fermented alcohol such as wine, champagne or beer
  • Blocked nose
  • Hives

The problem can result from too much histamine being produced inside your body; not being able to break down histamine properly, or from consuming more histamine-rich foods than your body can tolerate.

Foods very high in histamine include:

  • Fermented alcohol, such as wine, beer and champagne.
  • Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir and kombucha, vinegar, soy sauce, yoghurt.
  • Aged cheese.
  • Cured meats: bacon, hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, luncheon meats.
  • Leftover meat, fish or poultry. Even when kept in the fridge, these protein rich foods become higher and higher in histamine the longer they are stored. Therefore if you want to lower your histamine intake you’ll need to throw out any leftovers after 24 hours. An alternative is freezing these foods as soon as they’ve cooled down in single serve portions.
  • Bone broth if cooked for more than 8 hours.
  • Sourdough bread.
  • Smoked fish.
  • Canned fish.
  • Dried fruit.

Some foods trigger your body to produce more histamine, and they include alcohol, bananas, nuts, strawberries, shellfish, chocolate and many artificial food colours and preservatives.

Alcohol and tea have the ability to block the enzyme that breaks down histamine, which is called diamine oxidase. If you have introduced fermented vegetables into your diet and you are feeling worse, histamine intolerance is a possible culprit.

The most common cause of histamine intolerance is having low levels of the enzyme that breaks down histamine. Factors that reduce diamine oxidase production include:

  • Gluten intolerance.
  • SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth).
  • Leaky gut.
  • An inflamed digestive tract, caused by coeliac disease, a gut infection or inflammatory bowel disease.
  • Some people have inherited a genetic condition that impairs their ability to make the diamine oxidase enzyme. This is most common in Asian people.
  • Several different medications can deplete this enzyme, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, ibuprofen), some antidepressants, some immune modifying drugs (Humira, Enbrel), antihistamines, some medication for abnormal heart rhythms and H2 histamine blockers (drugs used for blocking stomach acid, such as Zantac, Tagamet and Pepcid).

The best way to find out if you have histamine intolerance, is to avoid the foods high in histamine, as well as all alcohol and tea, and watch for an improvement in symptoms. You can also buy the enzyme responsible for breaking down histamine in supplement form. The enzyme is diamine oxidase. If taking this enzyme makes you feel significantly better, you are probably histamine intolerant.

The most important way to improve histamine tolerance though is to fix your digestion; specifically improve the health of your small intestine. Histamine problems are extremely common in patients with autoimmune disease and allergies, since gut dysfunction is at the heart of these conditions. There is a great deal of specific helpful information in our book Healing Autoimmune Disease: A plan to help your immune system and reduce inflammation. Work on healing your gut, stay away from high histamine foods for around three months, and then you should find that your tolerance improves. You can heal your gut lining by taking supplemental glutamine, slippery elm, pectin, aloe vera and the probiotic Saccharomyces boulardii. These are all combined in a great tasting powder called Dr Cabot Ultimate Gut Health. BactoClear capsules contain berberine and the essential oils of clove, thyme and oregano. They can help symptoms of medically diagnosed irritable bowel syndrome.

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