Histamine Hack: How to Safely Eat Fermented Foods
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Histamine is a compound that is released from immune cells. Some gut bacteria and cells belonging to the nervous system also make histamine.
Histamine is what drives the most common signs of an allergy. Itchy, red eyes, sneezing, runny nose, and congestion are all part of the histamine response.
While your own cells make histamine, you also consume histamine with the food that you eat. Fermented foods—including cultured vegetables and young coconut kefir—naturally contain high amounts of histamine.
If you have symptoms of histamine intolerance, like a runny nose, headaches, asthma, or itchy skin, that’s no way to live. Your histamine tolerance lies in the gut.
For most of us, this isn’t a problem. But if you are not able to break down histamine, it ends up accumulating in the body. (1)
This can lead to signs of histamine intolerance, including:
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Hives or red, itchy skin
Histamine intolerance looks a lot like an allergic response. If you think that you are histamine intolerant, rule out an allergy with a skin prick test.
What Is Histamine Intolerance?
By some reports, roughly 1% of people are histamine intolerant. And 80% of that population is middle-aged. (2)
This number is controversial. We also see high levels of histamine in those with:
- Food allergies
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Irritable bowel disease, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
Eating high-histamine foods or having an allergic response can cause histamine levels to skyrocket. But histamine only accumulates when you cannot break it down.
Two enzymes are responsible for breaking down histamine. They are DAO (diamine oxidase) and HNMT (histamine-N-methyl-transferase). When these enzymes aren’t working like they should—or if we are genetically wired to have underactive enzymes—we begin to show signs of histamine intolerance.
You can help the DAO enzyme do its job by making sure your diet is rich in vitamin C and vitamin B6. Research shows that these vitamins can reduce your histamine load by supporting DAO enzyme activity. (3)(4)
Those with histamine intolerance are unable to tolerate high-histamine foods. (5)(6) This includes:
- Alcoholic drinks (including wine, beer, and spirits)
- Processed or partially processed oily fish (like tuna, sardine, mackerel, and herring)
- Cured meats (such as chorizo, salami, and sobrassada)
- Aged cheese (like manchego, parmigiano, gouda, gruyere, roquefort, and cheddar)
- Fermented foods, including sauerkraut and young coconut kefir
- Chocolate and vanilla
- Spinach, tomato, and eggplant
- Spices, such as cinnamon, chili powder, and cloves
Citrus fruits are also on the list of foods to avoid. This is because citrus fruits free up histamine—adding more work to an already overwhelmed system.
The Enzymes That Detoxify Histamine
People with histamine intolerance should also avoid foods that are rich in long-chain fats. However, medium-chain fats in coconut oil or palm oil are not a problem.
Long-chain fats stimulate the release of histamine during digestion. (7)
But the body is smart. It wouldn’t release a potentially dangerous compound (like histamine) without also throwing in the enzyme that destroys it.
This enzyme (DAO) breaks down histamine and prevents it from accumulating in the body. It literally detoxifies the histamine. As it turns out, you release the most DAO in the small intestine. (8) A healthy small intestine is full of enzymes that get rid of histamine. (9)
Scientists speculate that accumulating histamine is only a problem for those who do not make enough DAO—leading to an imbalance in histamine or histamine intolerance.
There are a few factors that influence DAO activity. In women, the menstrual cycle can actually predict how much of this detoxifying enzyme is available. (10) For example, during the luteal phase (after ovulation), a healthy woman has higher levels of DAO. This means that it is easier for her to detoxify histamine after she releases an egg and before she menstruates.
But one of the most important factors that influences DAO activity is diet.
As we mentioned earlier, a healthy small intestine is full of enzymes that break down histamine. When the small intestine is inflamed or leaky, there is less DAO and more histamine.
Studies show that the soluble fiber that you get through your diet can boost levels of enzymes, breaking down histamine and safeguarding against leaky gut. (11)(12)
You can enrich your diet with soluble fiber by eating plenty of:
- Grain-like seeds, like quinoa, millet, amaranth, and buckwheat
- Ocean vegetables or seaweeds
- Sour fruits, like sour green apples and berries
- Hearty green winter vegetables
Is Histamine the Bad Guy?
What histamine does depends on which histamine receptors are activated (there are four types of histamine receptors in the body). It also depends on whether or not you have enough enzymes to clean up excess histamine.
Histamine gets a bad rap—but it’s neither good nor bad.
For example, some of the probiotics in fermented foods produce histamine. But research shows us that histamine produced by gut bacteria actually regulates the immune system and has an anti-inflammatory effect. (13)
If you believe that you have recently developed histamine intolerance, avoiding high-histamine foods may make you feel better. But it won’t heal the root of the disorder. Your diet, your inner ecosystem, and your immune system (which includes histamine) all work together in concert. Restoring balance is ultimately more important than avoiding trigger foods.
To fully heal histamine intolerance and welcome fermented foods back into your life, you must heal your gut.
This only applies to those who do not have genetic histamine intolerance:
- Go on a low histamine diet.
- Focus on the 7 Universal Principles of The Body Ecology Diet, which ensure that you have plenty of fiber in your diet.
- After three months, begin reintroducing histamine-rich foods. Start with young coconut kefir.
What To Remember Most About This Article:
Your immune cells release a compound called histamine. Gut bacteria and cells in the nervous system can also produce histamine. Histamine most often triggers the signs of an allergy, like congestion, sneezing, runny nose, and itchy, red eyes. You can also consume histamine through the diet, from fermented foods like cultured vegetables and young coconut kefir.
Histamine doesn’t pose a problem for most people. But if you have histamine intolerance, symptoms may include headache, diarrhea, runny nose, asthma, rapid heartbeat, and itchy skin. Up to 1% of people may be histamine intolerant, most often during middle age.
Genetic factors aside, you can move toward histamine tolerance and enjoy fermented foods again with three simple steps:
- Start a low histamine diet.
- Increase fiber intake by following the 7 Universal Principles of The Body Ecology Diet.
- After three months, start to reintroduce gentle, histamine-rich foods like young coconut kefir.
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- Ji, Y., Sakata, Y., Li, X., Zhang, C., Yang, Q., Xu, M., … & Tso, P. (2013). Lymphatic diamine oxidase secretion stimulated by fat absorption is linked with histamine release. American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology, 304(8), G732-G740.
- Shakir, K. M., Margolis, S., & Baylin, S. B. (1977). Localization of histaminase (diamine oxidase) in rat small intestinal mucosa: site of release by heparin. Biochemical pharmacology, 26(24), 2343-2347.
- Luk, G. D., Bayless, T. M., & Baylin, S. B. (1980). Diamine oxidase (histaminase). A circulating marker for rat intestinal mucosal maturation and integrity. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 66(1), 66.
- Hamada, Y., Shinohara, Y., Yano, M., Yamamoto, M., Yoshio, M., Satake, K., … & Usami, M. (2013). Effect of the menstrual cycle on serum diamine oxidase levels in healthy women. Clinical biochemistry, 46(1), 99-102.
- Nakao, M., Ogura, Y., Satake, S., Ito, I., Iguchi, A., Takagi, K., & Nabeshima, T. (2002). Usefulness of soluble dietary fiber for the treatment of diarrhea during enteral nutrition in elderly patients. Nutrition, 18(1), 35-39.
- Fukudome, I., Kobayashi, M., Dabanaka, K., Maeda, H., Okamoto, K., Okabayashi, T., … & Hanazaki, K. (2013). Diamine oxidase as a marker of intestinal mucosal injury and the effect of soluble dietary fiber on gastrointestinal tract toxicity after intravenous 5-fluorouracil treatment in rats. Medical molecular morphology, 1-8.
- Ferstl, R., Frei, R., Schiavi, E., Konieczna, P., Barcik, W., Ziegler, M., … & O’Mahony, L. (2014). Histamine receptor 2 is a key influence in immune responses to intestinal histamine-secreting microbes. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 134(3), 744-746.