It’s thought that high-histamine foods could be triggering allergy symptoms in millions of us, but we may not be aware what’s causing them.
If you’re one of the 21 million adults in the UK with at least one allergy1, you’re well aware of the effects of histamine on the body. But some practitioners think high histamine levels could be affecting millions more of us – and that our diet could be to blame.
What is histamine?
Histamine is a neurotransmitter; a chemical that carries messages between cells. It’s made in the body by white blood cells called ‘mast cells’, but it’s also found in certain foods. Histamine is best known for its role in allergies.
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When the body mistakes a harmless allergen for a potential threat, like pollen, it releases histamine. This stimulates mucus production and opens the blood vessels so an army of white blood cells can rush to our defence. This leads to the classic symptoms of allergies such as puffy eyes, congestion, itching and swelling.
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What causes high histamine levels?
Some practitioners believe that many of us don’t make enough of the enzymes we need to break down histamine, namely diamine oxidase (DAO) and histamine N-methyltransferase (HNMT). This may cause histamine to build up in the body, especially if you eat a high-histamine diet, leading to histamine intolerance.
Symptoms of histamine intolerance may include:
• runny nose and watery eyes
• heartburn, cramps and digestive problems
• anxiety and fatigue
• eczema, hives or rashes
The histamines in food are produced by bacteria when food ferments or decays, so the fresher the food, the fewer histamines it contains. Fermented, smoked, cured and preserved foods tend to be particularly high in histamines.
High-histamine foods include:
• pickles, kimchi and sauerkraut
• fermented soy products, such as soy sauce and miso
• processed, cured and smoked meats
• mackerel, tuna, anchovies and tinned sardines (if not freshly caught)
• fermented or aged dairy products like yoghurt and cheese
• foods that contain yeast, including bread, cake and beer
• dried fruit
• alcohol, especially wine
Other foods don’t contain much histamine themselves but are thought to stimulate, or ‘liberate’, the release of histamines from the body’s mast cells.
• citrus fruits, bananas, berries, kiwi, papaya and pineapple
• pumpkin and squash
• egg whites
• many spices, including cinnamon, cloves and chilli powder
Black, green and mate tea, energy drinks and alcohol may also contribute to histamine intolerance by blocking production of DAO.
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Some people find that following a low-histamine diet can help reduce allergy symptoms. A study by researchers at the Dermatologic and Pediatric Allergy Clinic in Vienna put 45 people with allergy-like symptoms on a histamine-free diet. After four weeks, symptoms significantly improved in 33 people and disappeared in eight of them.2
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A low-histamine diet includes foods such as:
• gluten-free grains like quinoa
• most fresh fruit and vegetables (except those listed above)
• dairy substitutes like coconut and almond milks
• cooking oils like olive oil and coconut oil
• most leafy herbs and herbal teas
Some flavonoids such as quercetin, rutin and luteolin work like natural antihistamines.3 You can find quercetin in coriander and fennel, rutin in buckwheat, and luteolin in celery and oregano.
What’s the evidence?
A Canadian study published in the Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine in 2001 tracked the effects of a low histamine diet on 44 people with itchy, swollen skin. After four weeks, 61% said their symptoms had significantly improved.4
In 2011, Korean researchers following a case study for seven months found that a low-histamine diet improved his symptoms of atopic dermatitis (eczema).5
If you’d like to try a low-histamine diet6, talk to your GP and a nutritionist before doing so to ensure you’re not missing any essential nutrients.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please consult a doctor or healthcare professional before trying any remedies.
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1. Food Standards Agency. Allergy basics and stats. Available from: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/facts-stats.pdf
2. Wantke F, Götz M, Jarisch R. Histamine-free diet: treatment of choice for histamine-induced food intolerance and supporting treatment for chronic headaches. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10779289
3. Min YD, et al. Quercetin inhibits expression of inflammatory cytokines through attenuation of NF-kappaB and p38 MAPK in HMC-1 human mast cell line. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17588137
4. Joneja JMV, Carmona-Sliva C. Outcome of a histamine-restricted diet based on chart audit. Available from: http://www.allergynutrition.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Histamine-JMJ-2001.pdf
5. Chung BY, et al. Treatment of Atopic Dermatitis with a Low-histamine Diet. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3199434/
6. MGB Health. Dr Amy Myers. Everything you need to know about histamine intolerance. Available from: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-11175/everything-you-need-to-know-about-histamine-intolerance.html
Dr Joneja J. Histamine Intolerance Interview Transcript. Available from: https://healinghistamine.com/dr-janice-joneja-histamine-intolerance-interview-transcript/