Too Much Histamine: Natural Solutions to an Excessive Allergic ResponseJun 30, 2023 09:30AM ● By Carrie Jackson
Histamine is an organic chemical produced by the body as a protection from allergens. It is also found in some of the foods we consume. While certain levels of this compound are considered normal and healthy, an overabundance can cause troublesome symptoms—from runny noses and hives to intestinal discomfort and brain fog. Histamine intolerance, as this condition is called, is often caused by food triggers or the body’s inability to break down the excess histamine. Over-the-counter antihistamines promise short-term symptom relief but may have unappealing side effects. Long-term, drug-free resolution is possible with a little sleuthing and holistic lifestyle adaptations.
A Wide Array of Symptoms
“Histamine intolerance can affect every area of the body, including the brain. The inflammation created by excess histamine often leads to brain fog and other neurological symptoms,” says Michael Ruscio, a naturopathic practitioner, doctor of chiropractic, clinical researcher and author of Healthy Gut, Healthy You.
Symptoms of histamine intolerance often start in the intestinal tract with diarrhea and bloating and contribute to leaky gut. “If the sensitive gut lining is damaged, histamine can permeate to other areas of the body and lead to redness, swelling and itchiness, as well as respiratory issues, joint pain and anxiety. These seemingly unrelated symptoms can all have the same underlying cause, and patients, as well as many doctors, are not aware of these connections,” says Arti Chandra, a Seattle-based family practice physician who is certified in functional medicine and serves as faculty at the Institute for Functional Medicine.
Knowing the Triggers
“Mast cells, a type of white blood cell, are responsible for releasing histamine and other chemicals that cause inflammation. A histamine intolerance or exposure to high-histamine foods can lead to mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), where they release excess amounts into the body. Typically, enzymes will break down the histamine so that it doesn’t build up, but if the body doesn’t have the proper level of enzymes to break it down or if too much histamine is being released, then persistent symptoms can occur,” Chandra asserts.
Symptom management begins by healing the digestive system. “A healthy gut biome supports the body in producing one of the enzymes needed to break down histamine and can help lower inflammation,” she explains. “Dysbiosis, which is when the gut flora is out of balance, is often caused by the Standard American Diet, also known as SAD. Processed foods, fillers, chemicals, additives and other unnatural substances can all compromise the gut flora and gut function. Dysbiosis often leads to low levels of DAO [diamine oxidase], an enzyme in the gut that helps break down histamine. Some people can have a genetic basis for this—a mutation—that can also lead to excess histamine from impaired breakdown.”
Solutions for Histamine Overload
Per Ruscio, “A simple, balanced, whole foods diet like the Paleo diet is a great starting point to calm inflammation and heal your gut. This means aiming for a variety of vegetables, fresh fish, eggs, meat, nuts and seeds, and fruits in moderation. If symptoms continue, try a low-histamine diet.”
Chandra suggests avoiding processed and fast foods, gluten, dairy, sugar and artificial sweeteners. Foods that are naturally high in histamine, including aged cheese, fermented foods, cured meat, alcohol, caffeine and tomatoes, can exacerbate symptoms. She recommends eliminating triggers for three weeks and slowly reintroducing them one at a time to see which are still problematic. “As the gut biome becomes stronger, the body may naturally be able to tolerate high histamine foods better; eating a diet rich in prebiotic foods and sometimes taking an appropriate probiotic supplement can help with this,” she says.
Environmental factors can also trigger histamine reactions. “The body produces histamine to ward off substances like pollen, infections, chemicals and mold. Many people get what they think are normal allergies in the spring, with symptoms like runny noses, watery eyes and a scratchy throat. However, if these symptoms occur year-round, it could be a sign of a histamine intolerance or MCAS. Mold contains mycotoxins that are known to activate mast cells and lead to a histamine release. If someone is living in a building with mold and the exposure is continuous, it can lead to chronic inflammation and histamine issues. Proper air filters can help, but they ultimately may need to eliminate the mold or move out of the environment,” says Chandra.
While over-the-counter antihistamine medications may help, they can have a sedating effect and other side effects, including cognitive issues. Natural and holistic treatments work just as well and are often better tolerated by the body, Chandra says. “Quercetin, found in apple skin and onions, can stabilize mast cells and make them less leaky, as can luteolin, both of which are available in supplement form and in Himalayan Tartary buckwheat. Vitamin C is a natural antihistamine, and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil or supplements have anti-inflammatory properties. Stinging nettles, another stabilizer, can be used as a tea or in supplement form. Spices such as curcumin are natural anti-inflammatories and a nourishing addition to any diet,” she advises.
Stress management can help reduce histamine reactions, too. “Stress can trigger mast cells, causing a release of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals, as well as causing dysbiosis and leaky gut,” Chandra says. “Breathwork and meditation, as well as restful sleep, can help reduce histamine intolerance symptoms, support the gut and contribute to an overall level of internal balance.”
Carrie Jackson is a Chicago-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at CarrieJacksonWrites.com.