Histamine is a substance that plays an important role in a large number of processes in our bodies. An example of this is with our sleep-wake rhythm and the functioning of our immune system and nervous system. Our body makes its own histamine and stores it largely in so-called ‘mast’ cells. These specialized cells are located in tissues that are in contact with the outside world, such as the skin, lungs and gastrointestinal tract.
Histamine can be released from the mast cells during an allergic reaction and it enters the blood. Medications, such as certain painkillers (ibuprofen and morphine, among others), antibiotics and drugs for high blood pressure, can also release histamine. A vitamin B12 injection also releases (a lot of) histamine from the mast cells. When there is a lot of free histamine in our body, there is an elevated histamine level.
Histamine occurs naturally in many plant and animal products. In addition to the body’s own histamine, we also ingest it through our diet. In particular, fermented and mature foods contain a lot of histamine. Histamine from our food does not normally enter our bloodstream because the Diamine Oxidase enzyme (DAO) breaks it down in our intestines. With histamine intolerance, histamine is not broken down properly or at all, so histamine levels can become too high. Histamine levels that are too high can cause a variety of symptoms, such as itching, headaches and intestinal discomfort. The most common cause of histamine intolerance is a deficiency of the DAO enzyme, which prevents the histamine from your food from being broken down properly and ending up in your blood.
A histamine intolerance has several underlying causes. For example, certain conditions, such as gastrointestinal disorders, infectious diseases and heart disease, can lead to reduced production of the DAO enzyme. In some cases, production can even stop completely, such as with an intestinal infection or intestinal damage. Stress can also strongly influence your histamine level or cause the DAO enzyme to do its work insufficiently. Finally, your genetic background can also cause an increased risk of histamine intolerance.
Histamine is naturally found in many plant and animal products; fermented and aged foods especially, contain a lot of histamine. Examples of histamine-rich foods are:
- Dried fruit
- Pork meat
- Aged meats, such as salami
- Dry sausage
- Fish (except fish from the freezer)
- Aged cheese
- Alcohol, especially red wine
- Canned foods
- Spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla
While certain foods contain little histamine themselves, they can release additional histamine in the body. Foods rich in these so-called ‘histamine releasers’ include:
- Citrus fruits
- Chocolate & cocoa
- Alcoholic beverages
Certain foods can interfere with, or even completely block the function of the DAO enzyme. These may include caffeine and theine-rich beverages such as coffee, tea and energy drinks. Alcohol can also interfere with, or block the function of the DAO enzyme.
Fortunately, there are many foods that do not contain any, or only a very small amount of histamine. The rule is that the longer you leave a product, the more histamine is produced. So choose fresh food as much as possible, don’t store it too long and don’t heat up leftovers. If you want to keep food longer, freeze it to prevent further production of histamine. Examples of low histamine foods are:
- Fresh meat, preferably white meat
- Fresh fish or fish from the freezer
- Fresh vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and kale
- Fresh fruit such as apple
- Beans and other legumes
- Soft cheese
- Peanut butter
- Vegetable milk
- Fresh herbs
The signs and symptoms of a histamine intolerance can be very similar to an allergic reaction, even though there is no allergy involved. In addition, they can vary greatly from person to person. Common symptoms of histamine intolerance are:
- Feeling of ‘fog’ in the head
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Heat and redness
A histamine intolerance can be extremely unpleasant and limit you considerably in your daily life. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to prevent and suppress symptoms.
Try to avoid histamine-rich products as much as possible. Small amounts of histamine usually cause few symptoms, but keep in mind that even small amounts can also lead to too high a histamine level. Be careful with foods that release extra histamine in the body or block the Diamine Oxidase enzyme.
For histamine intolerance, it is advisable to get help from a dietitian who can put together a histamine-poor diet for you. Never start such a diet on your own because there is a chance that you will miss out on necessary nutrients. With a customized diet from a dietitian, you will continue to eat whole foods to ensure you get all the nutrients you need.
Supplements containing the enzyme Diamine Oxidase (DAO) can help with histamine intolerance. The DAO enzyme breaks down the excess histamine you ingest through your diet, preventing it from entering your bloodstream. So take these supplements with meals that are rich in histamine.
Besides the DAO enzyme there are other substances that can reduce your histamine level. Quercetin, vitamin C, vitamin B6, copper and zinc not only reduce your histamine level but also improve the production of the DAO enzyme. For maximum effect, you can also take these substances in combination with DAO supplements.
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