For a very long time now, I’ve know that I do not tolerate leftovers well. Sometimes I experience mild heartburn, sometimes severe heartburn lasting an entire day. Usually there is background sinus irritation – drippy nose, headaches.
Certain foods produce a more extreme reaction, like tomato based products: chili, spaghetti sauce, pizza.
The same friend I mentioned who opened my eyes to the possibility of healing autoimmune disease with diet and lifestyle (read more about that in My Health Journey article) was not just dealing with an autoimmune disease. She was also dealing with histamine intolerance with her daughter. I remember her basically breaking down as she shared how she got up really early each morning to cook fresh meat for her daughter. And then more fresh meat for lunch and more for dinner. I had never heard of this before.
She kindly explained that the histamine level in the meat would increase after being cooked (i.e. Leftovers) and the histamine was contributing to her daughter’s flare-ups, therefore, she was cooking fresh, from scratch, three meals a day, seven days a week. This sounded like some fresh kind of hell to me, but then I started thinking about my own symptoms.
You’ve probably heard of histamine as it relates to allergies. If you get red, watery eyes or a runny nose come spring or fall, you are experiencing a histamine reaction. If you’ve ever taken Benadryl or another allergy medicine – they are all anti-histamines.
But there is another place where histamine can affect your life – with the foods you eat. I have been meeting with a functional medicine doctor for a little over a year now. We mainly discuss my Crohn’s disease and the management of that, but he is looking at my whole body, the entirety of what is going on with me. So I talk with him about all of my symptoms, seemingly related to Crohn’s or not.
One of those symptoms has been chronic sinus inflammation, pressure, infections, pain, etc. He suggested that this might be related to a histamine intolerance. He sent me a couple articles, linked for you here, that helped explain in simple terms what histamine intolerance is and what foods are particularly high in histamine.
In case you don’t have the time or just don’t want to take the time to read all of that scientific jargon, I’ll outline the basics for you here.
What is Histamine?
Histamine is a chemical neurotransmitter produced by the body during an allergic reaction. So what does that mean? Imagine a game of hot potato. The people standing in a line getting ready to pass the potato are the neurons in your body. Neurons are just the special name for nerve cells. Neurons are what deliver messages throughout your body that get things done. The neurotransmitter is the potato. It is hopping from one person (neuron) to the next all down the line in order to get the message delivered to the right place. The type of neurotransmitter that is being passed determines the end result reaction.
You always have a small amount of histamine circulating throughout your body, but when you experience an allergic reaction or an immune reaction, your body releases a whole lot of histamine. Then you experience the symptoms typically associated with allergies: itchy, watery eyes, itchy skin, hives, trouble breathing, and in extreme cases, death. But histamine has another function that is critical to digestion: it activates gastric acid secretion. You need these acids to aid in digestion, but too much can cause heartburn, vomiting, diarrhea and eventually peptic ulcers.
Where does histamine come from?
As stated above, there is a small amount of histamine circulating in your body at all times. More is released during times or allergic or immune reactions. But histamine is also naturally occurring in many foods.
This is a general guideline and it is important for you to keep a detailed food diary as you try to figure out what your histamine threshold is and which foods are triggers for you. My personal experience has been that not all of the “high” histamine foods are a problem for me. Whereas, some others cause immediate and extreme symptoms. Here’s a list:
High histamine foods:
- Aged cheeses
- Preserved and pickled foods like sauerkraut
- Canned meats and fish
- Some nuts
- Some beans
- Chocolate and cocoa
- Most foods with preservatives
- Leftover meats – as soon as the meat is cooked, histamine begins to accumulate
- Chicken is higher in histamine than other poultry and higher than red meat
There are two other categories of foods to be aware of: histamine liberators and Diamine Oxidase (DOA) blockers.
Histamine Liberators: foods that aid in the release of histamine in the body:
- Citrus fruits
- Chocolate and cocoa
Diamine Oxidase Blockers: DOA is the primary enzyme responsible for the breakdown of ingested histamine. So if you consume foods that block the breakdown of histamine, you will naturally experience a buildup of histamine. Some of these foods are:
- Energy Drinks
What does it mean to be histamine intolerant?
If your body cannot tolerate the normal levels of histamine found in foods, then you are said to be histamine intolerant. This is generally due to having a lower than normal level of DOA, the enzyme that breaks down histamine. In a normal, healthy person, histamine is produced and/or consumed and then broken down and the balance is maintained well. In a histamine intolerant person, that balance gets out of whack.
If you are histamine intolerant, you will suffer from one or more of an amazingly wide variety of symptoms. The ones I listed above: stomach upset and typical allergy symptoms, but you might also have headaches, heart arrhythmia, vertigo/dizziness, difficulty sleeping and many more.
How do you know for sure if you are histamine intolerant?
There is a blood test for DOA levels, which would be helpful, but a detailed food diary is really the best way to go at first. If you have the blood test and it indicates that you have reduced levels of DOA, that will confirm the histamine intolerance, but it won’t tell you which foods are triggers for you.
What do you do about it?
I can’t honestly tell you that I know all the possible ways to deal with histamine tolerance, but I can tell you what I do and it works.
- I avoid high histamine foods. So no sauerkraut for me.
- I limit moderate histamine foods. Meaning chocolate occasionally, canned tuna once every two weeks, etc.
- I take a supplement called HistaminX twice a day.
- If I have to eat leftovers, then I take another supplement called Histamine Block.
By following each of these steps, I rarely suffer from symptoms of histamine tolerance anymore. Occasionally, I will forget and eat some leftover chicken, but my heartburn is so stinking severe afterward that it’s a long time before I make that mistake again.
If you suspect you may have a problem with histamine intolerance, I recommend you see a functional medicine or integrative medicine doctor. I haven’t found too many (I mean zero) mainstream physicians who are familiar with this condition. Also, start keeping a detailed food diary noting everything you consume and how you feel afterward.
I certainly hope this was helpful to you. If you’d like to see more “scientific” articles of this nature, please let me know in the comments. I am a science nerd at heart and love stepping out of my mommy shoes and doing research now and then.