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Histamines are naturally occurring chemicals that the body uses to get rid of certain allergens. When the body detects an allergy trigger, the defence system activates; that’s why, when a person is allergic to something, they often sneeze, break out in hives, get itchy, or suffer from watery and itchy eyes.
These symptoms may seem like a bad thing, but they’re actually caused by the histamines doing their job to get the allergen out of your system. They are released throughout the body and attach themselves to receptors, thus triggering a pesky allergic reaction. This reaction is what saves your body from allergens that can cause serious issues.
What is a histamine sensitivity?
Although histamines are generally good for the body, too much of a good thing can be detrimental to overall health. In this case, the increased release or ingestion of histamines when allergens aren’t present, can lead to what feels like an allergic reaction but isn’t.
Histamine sensitivity is rare and affects less than 2% of the population, but that number could be higher as it can easily mimic food allergies and gastrointestinal issues. How the body breaks down histamines is the difference between a good defence response and a histamine sensitivity.
What causes a histamine sensitivity?
Histamines are found naturally in the body, but also in a lot of food and drinks. When they are ingested, the body goes through a process to inhibit the absorption of the histamines in the gut. The enzyme diamine oxidase is responsible for the breakdown of the histamines, but some things can interfere with that process, which leads to too many histamines getting absorbed by the body.
Prescription drugs are one of the biggest culprits in encouraging the absorption of histamines that leads to an intolerance. Certain antidepressants, NSAIDS, heart medications, antibiotics, and pain medications can all play a part in histamine sensitivity. Other factors include alcohol consumption, injuries to the gut lining, vitamin deficiencies, chronic stress, and liver disease.
What foods are high in histamines?
Histamines can be found in everyday foods that you may not even realise you eat on a regular basis. These include:
- Pickled or canned foods such as sauerkraut
- Matured cheeses such as cheddar, gouda and gruyere
- Smoked meats such as salami, ham and sausages
- Shellfish and fish
- Ready-to-eat meals
- Beans such as chickpeas and soybeans
- Chocolates and other cocoa-based foods
- Salty and sweet foods that have artificial colouring and preservatives
A further differentiation needs to be made between foods with a high histamine content such as fish, meat and fermented products (exogenous histamine), and foods that trigger the release of the body’s own histamine (endogenous histamine). These so-called histamine liberators include certain berries such as strawberries, as well as products based on cocoa.
Foods that can help histamine sensitivity
Battling a histamine sensitivity can be hard, but it is achievable with the right diet. Eating foods that are low in histamine amounts, or inhibit the release of histamines, is the best way to battle a histamine intolerance.
Foods with low histamines include non-citrus fruits, fresh meat and fish, eggs, grains that don’t have gluten such as rice and quinoa, fresh vegetables, olive oil, and coconut and almond milk. Antihistamine foods include hot peppers (because of the capsaicin), tea, raw honey, and foods containing flavonoids. Certain supplements can also help inhibit histamine intolerance, including vitamin C, quercetin and omega 3.
Histamine sensitivity and Lyme disease
Lyme disease can come with a wide array of different medical conditions if it is left untreated for a long period of time. This post-Lyme disease syndrome can leave the person suffering with chronic health issues and lasting nerve damage. In the case of histamine sensitivity, a disorder called mast cell activation syndrome can occur.
Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) is a co-infection that occurs in patients with Lyme disease because the Borrelia bacteria that causes Lyme disease can lead to allergic reaction symptoms. When the mast cells are dysfunctional, inflammation is caused throughout the entire body. The symptoms of MCAS and Lyme disease are also eerily similar, making proper diagnosis difficult.
How to follow a histamine sensitivity diet
Following a histamine sensitivity diet might be a challenge at first if your regular diet is usually full of high-histamine foods. The best way to keep track of a diet with low histamines is by journaling the effects of your diet in your day-to-day life. This will help you figure out which foods trigger inflammation in the body.
Removing all foods with high histamine levels at first will encourage your body to get back to a healthy level of histamine production. Once this happens, you can reintroduce certain items, one at a time, to see how the body reacts. It’s a start-from-scratch approach and can take some time, but it will help you avoid eliminating all foods with high histamines from your diet.
A final key factor of a low-histamine diet is food hygiene end freshness. Exogenous histamine builds up in foods that spoil easily. Make sure you use clean knives and cutting boards when preparing your meals. Do not keep meals warm or re-heat – always cook fresh. Make sure that (mainly animal-derived) ingredients are extremely fresh, and to minimise the exogenous histamine formed over the storage time, do not store these ingredients at home for longer than one day.