You’ve undoubtedly seen ads on TV or online for antihistamines — drugs designed to combat seasonal allergies stemming from pollen, mold and other junk in the air. These drugs fight what’s known as histamines, which your body cranks out when it encounters an airborne allergen, often leading to congestion, sneezing and sniffling.
What you might be less aware of (and something you don’t see in advertisements): Histamines come into play in your daily diet, too.
To come up with answers to common questions about food-related histamine intolerance, we consulted two nutrition professionals, and combed through research and medical advice.
1. What is histamine?
Registered dietitian Katie Chapmon explains that histamines are chemicals involved in digestion, immune function and the central nervous system. Some foods naturally contain histamines, block the enzyme that breaks down histamines in the body or cause the body to make histamines, she says.
2. What problems can histamines cause?
Histamines trigger an inflammatory response — which they’re supposed to do — and the body usually breaks down histamines so that there’s not an oversupply of them, Chapmon says. For people who can’t easily break down histamines or have too much of, a histamine intolerance can develop.
3. What are the symptoms of histamine intolerance?
According to a study published in 2007 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consuming foods rich in histamines or alcohol or drugs that release histamines or block diamine oxidase (DAO), an enzyme that can treat symptoms of histamine intolerance, can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea, headache, asthma, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, hives, and itchy skin. In addition, histamine intolerance can cause symptoms associated with seasonal allergies, such as nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, red eyes, and itchy nose or eyes.
Fortunately, it’s estimated that less than 1 percent of us deal with histamine intolerance. Still, that means that perhaps millions of us do cope with it.
4. Which foods should someone with histamine intolerance avoid?
Because these foods and beverages either release or store histamines, Chapmon, registered dietitian nutritionist Amy Archer and other experts recommend staying away from:
- Fermented dairy products, including aged cheese, buttermilk, kefir, sour cream and yogurt
- Fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut
- Cured or fermented meats, such as bacon, ham, pepperoni, salami and sausage
- Canned foods
- Citrus fruit
- Dried fruit
Keep in mind that these foods and beverages may or may not drastically affect your histamine intolerance. However, if you suspect you have histamine intolerance, it’s wise to keep these foods and beverages out of your diet until you know for sure.
5. What can you do to overcome histamine intolerance?
First off, you can treat histamine reactions by altering your diet and taking certain supplements.
Here are four recommendations from Archer:
- Follow a low-histamine diet that includes fresh (not packaged) foods, including fruits and vegetables (those that don’t release or store lots of histamines, of course), gluten-free grains, and fresh proteins like chicken and beef.
- Stay away from leftover food, which can collect histamine-producing bacteria.
- Steer clear of slow-cooked food, which can accumulate histamines. Instead, opt for pressure cooking or boiling.
- Consider taking vitamin C, vitamin B6 and copper or other vitamins and supplements that might ease histamine intolerance.
Champon notes that it’s best to tackle the root cause of your histamine intolerance and not just address the symptoms. For instance, your symptoms might be arising from small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), leaky gut or an inflammatory disease, she says.
Whatever path you decide to take in battling histamine intolerance, you should first consult with a healthcare professional, Archer says.
6. How can you tell whether you’re histamine-intolerant?
Typically, Archer says, a healthcare professional can diagnose histamine intolerance by putting you on a histamine-free diet for a set period, and then gradually introducing high-histamine foods and checking your tolerance of them. This is called an elimination diet. Also, a blood test can detect histamine-related activity involving the enzyme DAO.