Think You Have Allergies? Think Again.

Histamine and Allergies. Histamine Intolerance Investigated.

(Please welcome back Erin from Natural Wonderer. Today she brings you the first of two posts full of surprising information about histamine intolerance and allergies. They just may change what you think you know about allergies for good.)

Like so many people I know, I have struggled with mild to moderate eczema off and on my entire life.

After modifying my diet drastically in order to nurse my son who has food allergies, my eczema took a turn to be the worst it has ever been.

The red patches on my hands were so awful looking that people would ask me if I had been burned. It definitely wasn’t fun to deal with the questions or the pain from the eczema itself.

I knew that eczema was commonly triggered by food allergies or sensitivities, but I had done an elimination diet and wasn’t eating anything that affected me. In addition, I had eliminated all grains and most of the other major allergens in order to comply with my son’s diet. According to popular diets such as the paleo diet, GAPS, and The Body Ecology Diet, everything that I was doing should have been healing my eczema. Instead, it continued to get worse and worse.

As is usual for me, I began to research what could possibly be causing my condition to get worse instead of better. I also began to notice that sometimes specific foods seemed to make my skin worse, but other times they didn’t bother me at all.

After hours of searching, I finally hit upon something that made sense.

The foods that were bothering me were all high in histamine, and there was a condition known as histamine intolerance that caused symptoms such as eczema.

By removing grains from my diet I had actually increased my intake of high histamine foods greatly, thereby exacerbating my symptoms.

Through more research and testing I have realized that histamine intolerance is exactly what was causing my eczema, but when I share that with others they look at me like I am crazy! Histamine intolerance is a fairly new term in the medical community, so it is not widely recognized. In today’s post and in its follow-up I will be sharing with you just exactly what histamine intolerance is, how to tell if you have it, and how to go about healing your body so it can better deal with histamine.

What is histamine?

Histamine is an organic compound found in the body that is most known for its role in the inflammatory response, although it plays other important roles, as well. It is produced and stored by basophils in the blood and mast cells in the tissues and is most often associated with allergic reactions.

Is histamine bad?

Histamine tends to have a bad reputation because it is released during allergic reactions, causing a runny nose, watery eyes, decreased breathing ability, hives, and other typical allergy symptoms that no one enjoys. In reality, though, histamine plays a crucial role in many bodily processes.

“We require histamine for brain function, it’s a neurotransmitter. We require histamine for digestion because it’s the trigger for the release of gastric acid, which is always released when we start to eat – it’s the first stage of breakdown of protein in the stomach, for example – and we require it constantly for protection because histamine is one of the ways the body fights infection or any adverse event in the body because these events will result in inflammation as the result of histamine release.” (Dr. Janice Joneja)

We literally could not survive without histamine in our bodies, but there is a point where it becomes too much of a good thing.

What is histamine intolerance?

The terms “histamine intolerance,” “histamine sensitivity,” and “histamine excess” are used in medical literature, but they all mean the same thing. When too much histamine builds up in the body, it causes symptoms that are often similar to traditional allergy symptoms.

Histamine intolerance is not actually an allergy to histamine.

It is actually not an allergy at all despite its similar symptoms. The symptoms are so similar because allergic reactions always involve the release of histamine in the body. Histamine intolerance actually comes from other processes that either make excess histamine or render the body unable to properly break down histamine that is present.

Histamine & Allergies - Think You Have Allergies?  Think Again!Symptoms

So what are the symptoms of histamine intolerance? They can be broken down into three main categories: respiratory distress, digestive tract distress, and distress in the skin (all typical allergy symptoms, as well). Of course individual symptoms will vary, but histamine intolerance can cause:

  • Itching (especially of the skin, eyes, ears, and nose)
  • Hives
  • Eczema or other rashes
  • Swelling (especially in mouth and throat)
  • Hypotension (a drop in blood pressure)
  • Heart racing
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sinus pressure
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Runny nose
  • Irritate, watery, red eyes
  • Headaches
  • Confusion or irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Heartburn, reflux, or other digestive distress
  • Diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome
  • A hangover-like feeling after exposure to high levels of histamine

All of these symptoms beg the question:

Where does this excess histamine come from?
Why do some people have too much and some people don’t?

The analogy of a bucket is often used to describe histamine intolerance. Histamine is poured into the bucket (the body) from three different sources.

1.  There is always some histamine in the bottom of the bucket because it is necessary for basic body processes such as brain function, digestive function, and protection.

2.  The second source of histamine is poured in when the body has an allergic reaction to something, either environmental or food. Some people have very few allergies and, therefore, allergies don’t add much histamine to their buckets. Others have multiple allergies, and their bucket fills quickly.

3.  The last source of histamine for the bucket is high histamine foods in the diet. If an individual’s bucket is already fairly full of histamine from the first two sources, histamine from the third source, the diet, can cause the bucket to overflow. When the bucket overflows, symptoms occur.

What is tricky about histamine intolerance is that the level of histamine in the bucket will vary so greatly from day to day and from one season to the next.

For example, when pollen counts are high, there will be more histamine in the bucket, so even a small amount of histamine in the diet could cause symptoms. At other times, when environmental allergies are sparse, more histamine can be consumed through food without causing the bucket to overflow.

It is difficult to determine which histamine-containing foods might be offenders because if the level of histamine in the bucket is low before a high histamine food is consumed, the histamine in that food might not be enough to cause the bucket to overflow into symptoms. At other times, when the level of histamine in the bucket is higher, that same food will cause a reaction. Some individuals seem to have larger buckets, meaning that their bodies can effectively process more histamine without a reaction. Others seem to have smaller buckets or more sources of histamine that make them more prone to symptoms.

Causes of Histamine Intolerance

Histamine intolerance can basically be boiled down to the difference between how much histamine there is in the system and the body’s ability to break that down. Because researchers are just beginning to recognize this condition, there aren’t a lot of exact answers about its cause.

Most of what we think we know is speculation or the result of preliminary research.

- Genetics

It is thought that histamine intolerance is partially genetic, as people with certain genes seem to be more predisposed to it than others. It can be acquired by people who don’t possess those genes, as well, so there are other factors at play (and perhaps different factors for different people).

- Enzyme Deficiency

Some individuals appear to have trouble producing one or the other of the two enzymes needed to degrade histamine- Diamine Oxidase (DAO) and Histamine N-methyltransferase (HNMT). When the body is unable to effectively inactivate histamine, even at normal levels, there is a buildup of histamine that results in adverse symptoms.

- Too much Histamine

Others might produce histamine too efficiently, either as a result of having too much Histidine Decarboxylase (which changes the amino acid histidine into histamine) or because they have issues with the methylation process. An imbalance of gut flora can also be a cause of excess histamine because certain species of bacteria actually produce histamine. If these species dominate the gut, they will produce a constant stream of histamine that the body may be unable to keep up with.

Any of these causes by themselves or in combination would make it much easier for the histamine bucket to overflow, resulting in the symptoms mentioned above. It is entirely possible that there is another cause of histamine intolerance that has not yet been discovered, as well.

Gut Health

Histamine intolerance is closely related to gut health, as that is one of the primary places that histamine enters the body and where histamine degrading enzymes are formed.

Many people with histamine intolerance are nutrient deficient, and they often have or are at risk for other gut-related conditions such as autoimmune diseases, gluten intolerance, and inflammatory bowel diseases. Although histamine intolerance can occur without a leaky gut, they most commonly go hand in hand, and leaky gut exacerbates the symptoms of histamine intolerance.

Stay tuned for the follow-up to this post which will explain:

– if you are histamine intolerant
– what foods are high in histamine, and
– how to get on the path to healing!

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{From Adrienne – this allergy and eczema information is really fascinating.  We had our own trials with eczema and food allergies which you can read about here.}  Please remember.  Neither Erin nor I are medical professionals.  Please don’t change your diet or supplement protocol without consulting your physician.  Thank you!

Do you, or does someone in your family suffer from allergies?
Have you heard about histamines before?

CC image courtesy of mcfarlandmo via Flickr

Erin Ter Beest - Writer for Whole New MomAbout Erin

Erin Ter Beest lives and blogs in Alto, Wisconsin. She takes care of her son, Sawyer, while dabbling in traditional foods, alternative health, raising chickens and milk goats, and building a small, sustainable house with her husband, Casey. More of Erin’s thoughts on all things food, nutrition, farm, and home can be found at her website, Natural Wonderer. She also loves to connect on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest.

Shared at The Nourishing Gourmet and Real Food Forager.

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  1. I think many people suffer from similar problems, but often for different reasons. When I started reading your article, my first thought was that you shouldn’t be using any kind of anti-bacterial hand soap and you need to use all natural laundry detergents. The reason? The hand soap caused my hands to break out to the point of burning and cracking, while commercial laundry detergents caused giant red and itchy blotches on my legs. Staying away from anti-bacterial soaps and using an all natural laundry detergent cured my skin problems.

    Everyone is different, so your article may help one person, while my comment will help someone else. I do wish you had listed some common high histamine foods, like red wine.

    • Hi Claire-

      Thanks for your comment! I definitely agree that eczema can be caused by many things and am in no way saying that it is only caused by histamine intolerance. Thanks for your suggestions. Stay tuned for part two of this post next week for a list of high histamine foods and ways to start healing histamine intolerance!

      Erin

  2. I have actually heard about this and did some research of my own. For those who have it, it can take a long time to diagnose because there are so many other health conditions that mimic it. I was told my entire life that I had exercise-induced asthma. Never took anything; just watched my workout/sports level. Then after my daughter was born, it got worse–actually started wheezing, and the coughing became severe. Turns out I don’t have asthma at all–I am allergic to casein. Took casein foods out of my diet–no more asthma. Yes, asthma really can be cured. My daughter had a rash all over her hands that we dealt with for over 2 years, eliminating foods and food groups, changing and deleting all different kinds of personal care products, soaps, etc.; could never figure out what was wrong. Took her to a doctor who does Nutritional Response Testing (working with real, whole food and supplements), who diagnosed her with a very acute form of mold, probably from when she last went horseback riding and currycombed her horse. She most likely inhaled a mold spore, and her body was unable to fight it off. She’s only been on the treatment protocol for 2 months, and already her hands have made a drastic improvement. Sometimes, it takes looking in the most uncommon of places for the triggers. Thanks for writing about histamine intolerance. I know some people who I suspect also suffer from this, so will look into it some more.

  3. I can’t wait to hear more! I would love to know how to fix the root problems of gut bacteria and methylation. And how to know which of these is the root problem.

  4. Thanks for the post! I know I have leaky gut & food intolerances but there have been some reactions we can’t quite figure out. I’ve wondered about a histamine issue now I’m motivated to add it to my list of questions for my ND on Monday. Looking forward to part two.

    • You may want to read up on histamine intolerance and perhaps take some info with you to the appointment. I’ve known more than a few alternative care providers (NDs included) who weren’t familiar with histamine intolerance. Hopefully yours is amazing and does, though! :) Best of luck with your health journey!

  5. I wonder if this ties in with yeast in the body, and if so, how it does. I have a known yeast problem, so I avoid the foods that create yeast overgrowth in the body. But sometimes, some things happen and it sounds like a histamine type response. Very interesting, thanks so much for sharing this! I can’t wait to hear more!

  6. Great post! Leaky gut is key, as another source of histamine is actually gut dysbiosis, the major dilemma we are trying to heal. McBride discusses the varying bacteria families and what happens when they become malevolent and overgrown. Some of these pathogens (like proteus family, e coli family, and others) actually produce histamine, adding to the excess load in our systems. Thanks for sharing another piece to the puzzle for readers who are struggling!

    • Thanks, Gaby! When you say McBride, do you mean Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride of the GAPS diet? I would be interested in a link to the information you referenced. In part two (coming next week) I have linked to sources that talk about specific strands of bacteria that produce histamine, but I am interested in the families thing.

  7. Thank you good piece.

  8. What a timely post- we have two kids with food allergies, one more severely, and more restricted. I am following very eagerly for the next post. I am curious if this could explain why she tests negatively to an allergen but then has bad reactions to them on contact/if she eats them. Thank you for your hard work- I’m very grateful.

  9. I appreciate your post. I have been living with histamine intolerance. This is a hard thing to live with because many don’t understand it. The fact that many foods are not labeled as fermented, and many low histamine food lists vary so much also makes it difficult. The symptoms are hard for many doctors to understand, so it can be a frustrating and lonely condition to have. The more we can get information out there, validate that the symptoms are real, and learn how to live with it, the better. Thanks for doing this.

    • I can understand the crazy looks you get from people when you try to explain histamine intolerance or why you can’t eat a certain food! I hope that my posts can help a few people to understand the condition better, although I’m far from an expert.

  10. Thank you for posting such an informative article. I will look forward to reading the rest!

  11. Thanks for sharing! My son has food allergies and I’ve noticed some strange changes in my own body since cutting them out for breastfeeding.