Histamine is an inflammatory mediator released from white blood cells, called a mast cells. Mast cells detect things that are foreign to it, like pollen, certain foods, or even viruses. With allergic reactions and depending on what the person is allergic to; mast cells detect that allergen and will try to get rid of it. They do that by exploding and releasing histamine and other inflammatory chemicals that can then fight off that allergen. This is normal and necessary part of our immune systems, but not all immune systems behave appropriately. We don't just make our own histamine, its also present in certain foods and drinks.
The problem is that they are also affect the body depending on where they are exploding. If the histamine is released in the nose and sinuses, you will get a runny or congested nose and a headache. If the histamine is released in the bronchial tubes, you might get a cough or an asthma exacerbation. Histamine causes water retention by causing capillaries to dilate and allowing them to leak fluid, which results in swelling, and some people even experience increased joint pain.
Diamine Oxidase (DAO) is the enzyme in your body which breaks down histamine, but in some people its low and they have increased reactions. Various factors may contribute to reduced DAO activity or overproduction of histamine, including genetics, alcohol, certain medications (anti-inflammatories and pain killers), intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and eating large amounts of histamine-containing foods. Stress can also play a role as stress hormones such as cortisol can activate mast cells to release more histamine, and also reduce DAO activity.
The oestrogen connection; it has been noted that women tend to be more commonly affected by histamine intolerance. Histamine can stimulate oestrogen production and oestrogen can induce mast cells to degranulate. Elevated oestrogen levels during the menstrual cycle can lead to increased histamine release, and sensitivity, and result in symptoms such as migraines and cramping, while progesterone has been shown to reduce the effects of histamine.
It’s clear that supporting the delicate balance of hormones can be key to reducing symptoms.
During peri-menopause and menopause many women can experience a worsening of symptoms as hormone levels fluctuate.
High histamine foods include:
Tinned fish (e.g. tuna, anchovies, sardines, mackerels, herring, rollmops)
Smoked or dried fish (e.g. smoked salmon, salted herring)
Seafood (e.g. squid, mussels)
Crustaceans (e.g. shrimps, crabs, prawns)
Wine and beer
Whilst I don’t recommend completely eliminating the foods on this list, moderation can be useful. And it can be worth keeping a food diary and noting if you experience increased symptoms after eating them? Or if you have a strong reaction think back to what you’ve eaten that day.
There are also many natural foods that can block the histamines so that they don't cause reactions and can also act to stabilise the mast cells so that they don't explode in the first place.
My Favourite Natural Antihistamines:
1. Ginger is a histamine blocker or antihistamine but is also great for the immune system. Shave off a small piece of ginger and put it in a mug. Pour hot water over it and steep for 3-5 minutes. Then drink and enjoy. Or add to fresh juices.
2. Thyme is a herb with very high levels of vitamin C along with a variety of other anti-inflammatory compounds, which work together to help blocks histamine and also prevents the release of histamine from mast cells. Use it liberally in food during cooking or prepare a tea with it.
3. Watercress is a very potent anti-histamine and can easily be used in salads or sautéed in coconut oil and garlic, which can also decrease the release of histamine from mast cells
4. Capers have one of the highest levels of Quercetin available in nature. Quercetin is a powerful anti-oxidant that can accomplish both jobs: stabilise mast cells and acts as an antihistamine. Fresh capers are best but even those preserved in salt are a great option. Other good food sources of quercetin include dill, red onions, red apples, fennel and coriander, and its present in different levels in honey, which may support the theory of taking local honey to reduce hay fever symptoms.
5. Turmeric is a spice that can prevent the release of histamine from mast cells and can even inhibit anaphylactic reactions. It can be used in cooking or can be made into a tea. Roasted, organic chicken rubbed with turmeric, garlic and thyme served with broccoli and sweet potatoes, is the perfect meal to combat histamine.
6. Green tea, the bioactive compound epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a major component of green tea, has been shown to target histamine-producing cells reducing their activity, and EGCG has been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumour effect, as well as containing the anti-anxiety compound L theanine.
I recommend 2 cups as day or green or white tea.
7. Last but not least extra virgin olive oil is histamine lowering and supports the release of DAO, add a tablespoon to each meal. It’s also great to use topically to sooth dry itchy skin and hives without irritation.
Try to avoid regular use of over the counter anti-histamines as they can cause biological changes resulting in increased appetite, overeating, slower fat breakdown and weight gain. Antihistamines can also make you feel tired and unmotivated to exercise, and raise blood pressure. This is where quercetin supplements can be really useful and can be taken in high doses to resolve acute symptoms. Speak to a registered health care professional before taking any supplements.