Those of us who suffer from allergies—whether to pollen, animals, or certain foods—are likely familiar with the term “antihistamine.” Found on the labels of numerous over-the-counter medications, we may rely on them to combat our runny noses, headaches, itching, and hives. However, despite the prominence in our local pharmacy, many of us underestimate the role of histamines in our health.
First, what are histamines? For one, they help carry signals between nerves. Another vital role is fighting allergens that enter the body. When a foreign pathogen, like pollen or dander, enters the body, histamines rush to the site of contact and begin a series of reactions to help rid the body of the allergen.
The result of this internal sequence of events is familiar to anyone with allergies and includes inflammation, a rash, runny nose, and watery eyes. All due to histamines dilating our capillaries to allow white blood cells to easily remove the foreign invaders. In small amounts, histamines are essential components of a healthy, well-functioning body.
Problems don’t arise until the body becomes intolerant to histamines, or it receives an excess of histamines from external sources.
While the body can generally process the amount of histamines it produces, some people may have lower levels of an important enzyme that helps break down histamines, causing issues in the body. Histamines can also enter the body through the foods we eat. Certain foods have high levels of histamines, and eating too many or too much of these foods can cause health problems in certain people.
Histamine intolerance is marked by a variety of allergy-like symptoms, including flushing, headaches, a runny nose, rashes, nausea, acid reflux, and dizziness. Unfortunately, a histamine tolerance is often difficult to diagnose, as symptoms are often attributed to a food or environmental allergy instead of an inability to process histamine in the body. As a result, histamine intolerance often goes undiagnosed—currently, only 1% of the population has been diagnosed with histamine intolerance with 80% of those diagnosed being middle-aged people.
If you suspect you have a histamine intolerance, there are easy changes you can make to your diet to reduce your symptoms and the burden of histamines in your body. Experts analyzed the histamine levels in various foods and discovered the following foods have the potential for high levels of histamines:
- Canned, cured, and processed meats, like tuna, sardines, fermented sausage or salami
- Fermented or pickled vegetables, like sauerkraut
- Vegetables including spinach, eggplant, and tomato products (e.g., ketchup)
- Any alcohol
The freshness of food is a very important indicator of the level of histamines found in the food. As you can see from the list above, foods that are aged in some form tend to be much higher in histamines than their fresh form.
To ensure you are minimizing your histamine load, try to eat as many fresh foods as possible. Visit your local farmers’ market for local fruits and vegetables. Purchase or make your own fresh juices and smoothies instead of the bottled, sugar-heavy alternatives that line the shelves of the grocery store. If you eat meat, purchase from local suppliers and refrain from eating leftovers. If you eat dairy, replace aged cheeses with mozzarella, goat cheese, ricotta, and other fresh cheese options.
Minimizing your intake of histamine-heavy foods is a simple way to reduce your symptoms and lower the burden of histamines in your body.