Histamine Intolerance – What It Is And How It Affects Your Body

histamine intolerance featured image

Nothing cramps your style quite like an allergic reaction, right? It’s amazing how the same handful of peanuts that bring immense pleasure to one individual, can trigger a life-threatening case of anaphylactic shock in another.

It’s the difference between one person enjoying a glass of full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, and the other having to deal with a migraine headache, flushing, hives, nausea, diarrhea, or even vomiting shortly after drinking the very same wine. While the severity of allergies varies from person to person, they all share a common denominator – histamines.

You probably already know what antihistamine drugs are and what they do. But did you know that natural remedies exist? This article explores everything you need to know about histamine intolerance and the beneficial role natural histamine blockers can play as you cope with histamine intolerance, what they are, why and when they may be needed, and the complex relationship your body has with histamine.

How Histamine Affects the Body

Before getting into what natural histamine blockers are, you need to understand what histamine intolerance is, and isn’t, and the role natural histamine blockers can play in the body’s healthy immune response.

Anytime you encounter something that you experience an allergic reaction to – whether it is wine or peanuts, your immune system detects it as a threat to your body. It launches its defense mechanism in a bid to fight off this perceived allergen and mitigate any potential harm it could cause. Here’s how.

When the immune system detects an allergen or “a disturbance in the force,” if you will, it sends a message throughout your body to release histamines. Once released into circulatory system, histamines turn on the body’s natural defense mechanisms so they can do everything they can to alleviate the threat.

They increase blood flow to the parts of your body affected by the allergen so that other chemicals can step in to start the repair work and healing process. This, in turn, results in inflammation and causes the common allergic reactions people commonly experience.

These include symptoms like migraines, skin rashes (hives), runny nose, difficulty breathing, sore eyes, joint swelling and pain, digestive issues, and general bodily malaise. All of this occurs in order to rid the allergen that's responsible for the flare-up.

Now, this is all fine, for the most part, if the allergen in question is indeed a threat. In such instances, the immune system is perfectly justified in its response. But here’s where the problem lies. What if the body overreacts to something that’s not truly dangerous, then you can see that would probably be a problem.

Histamine Intolerance

Intolerance to histamine is not to say that you are hypersensitive to histamine – rather it is more of an indication that there’s too much histamine circulating throughout your body for your metabolic systems to process and the histamine levels get high enough to start causing undesirable allergy-like side effects.

Histamine intolerance isn't like any other food allergy or sensitivity you might experience. It is more of a cumulative process, as opposed to an immediate one.

Imagine you have a bucket. Let’s call it your “histamine bucket.” Every little bit of histamine that enters your body goes into this bucket.

The rate at which the bucket fills up depends on several factors like genetics, age, medication, the environment, any nutritional deficiencies you might have, hormones, stress, perfume, chemicals, caffeine, soap, detergent, light/UV exposure, smoke, weather, red wine… the list could go on. So, yours might fill up faster or slower from day-to-day, depending on these factors.

This is perfectly fine, for the most part, as long as your bucket doesn’t completely fill up. The moment it does, any additional histamine, even a “drop” of it, will cause the bucket to overflow. Reaching this threshold level of histamine is what triggers the nasty symptoms of histamine intolerance that you experience.

When the histamine levels get too high, and the body is unable to metabolize it adequately, you will experience the symptoms associated with histamine intolerance. And, this can interfere with your normal body functions. The symptoms associated with histamine intolerance are, in many ways, very similar to those of classic allergic reactions. They include:

  • Headaches or migraines
  • Nasal congestion and other sinus issues
  • Digestive issues
  • Skin rash of hives
  • Fatigue
  • Joint swelling and pain
  • Irregular menstrual cycle
  • Nausea and vomiting

In more severe cases, individuals with histamine intolerance may also experience:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Anxiety
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme fluctuations in body temperature
  • Irregular heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Tissue swelling

Causes of Histamine Intolerance

The real question to ask is – What would cause abnormally high histamine levels that would result in intolerance? Here’s what you need to know.

When your histamine bucket continues to fill up with histamines as described in the previous section, at some point, it will inevitably overflow. This “overflow” is what activates the symptoms you experience.

Your body would need to do everything it can to either prevent the bucket from overflowing by ensuring that the histamine levels are kept in check or find an efficient way to breakdown the excess histamine that’s triggering the symptoms.

There are several possible reasons why blood histamine levels in the body would rise to abnormally high levels, therefore, causing your histamine bucket to overflow. There are also several reasons why your histamine bucket can decrease in its capacity for processing the histamines that are circulating throughout your body. Let’s begin with the most common ones.

How Inhibited or Low Levels of Specific Enzymes Affect Histamine Levels

More often than not, people who suffer from histamine intolerance lack two major enzymes – Histamine-N-methyl transferase (HNMT) and Diamine oxidase (DAO). Their sole purpose is to keep the blood histamine levels in the normal ranges throughout the body.

Both of these enzymes metabolize histamine and ensure that it remains at acceptable levels. The problem comes when your body isn’t producing enough of these enzymes or these enzymes are not metabolizing histamines as efficiently as they should.

DAO, in particular, plays an important role in breaking down dietary histamine to reduce its absorption into the body since DAO is produced in the digestive tract and liver. Impaired DAO activity or a deficiency in it, can directly lead to elevated levels of histamine in the blood.

A DAO deficiency could stem from:

  • Ingesting foods or drinks that have unusually high levels of histamine can cause DAO enzymatic capacity to be inadequate
  • Ingesting foods or drinks that not only block DAO enzymes but also trigger the release of additional histamine in the body
  • Taking medications that inhibit production of DAO by the body or interfere in the proper functioning of the enzyme
  • Gastrointestinal disorders like inflammatory bowel disease and leaky gut syndrome which both affect the DAO levels present in the body
  • Overgrowth of bacteria in the gut which occurs when food isn’t digested properly can impair the production of DAO
  • Changing hormone levels from pregnancy and aging can also be responsible for the low production of DAO since hormones are primary modulators of the DAO enzyme system
  • Other biogenic amines present in many foods are potent inhibitors of DAO activity thus causing allergy symptoms to occur

As mentioned before, DAO is expressed in the gut and liver. So, ingested histamine would need to pass through the gastrointestinal system for the enzyme to break it down, before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Nevertheless, the gut is not the only site for absorption. The biogenic amines like histamine, present in foods and beverages, also get absorbed through the mucosal membranes in the mouth. When this happens, these biogenic amines are absorbed directly into the bloodstream, effectively by-passing the gut and liver before DAO has a chance to metabolize them. Once the biogenic amines are circulating throughout the body, they are able to induce histamine intolerance symptoms.

This explains why the side effects that come from ingesting histamines in a liquid form like wine are almost immediate, as opposed decreased/delayed symptoms when histamines are consumed in solid foods like cheese. In summary, the histamines are more readily absorbed by the body in liquid form than solid form.

How Diet Affects Histamine Levels in the Body

It is often quite difficult to determine the exact levels of histamine in the foods you consume. In some items like cheddar cheese, for instance, the levels vary depending on prevailing factors like whether or not it has any additives, how long it’s been aged for, and even the way it is stored. All these can affect the levels in one way or another.

Foods that have been fermented typically have higher-than-usual levels of histamine, whereas fresh, unprocessed foods tend to have the lowest levels overall.

Many foods have varying degrees of histamine and other biogenic amines present. As the foods progressively age, these amines increase in quantity.

So, you might find that histamine-intolerant individuals can safely consume certain types of foods without running the risk of suffering any of the unpleasant side effects that come from having high blood histamine levels. But, if these same individuals ingested aged/matured forms of the same foods, their symptoms would flare-up.

High histamine concentrations are common in foods that are the end-product of a microbial fermentation process. These include cheese, wine, sauerkraut, and processed meat. Other biogenic amines like tyramine, cadaverine and putrescine, in combination with histamine, may also trigger intolerant reactions in individuals with the condition.

Alcohol, particularly red wine, is not only rich in histamines but is also a potent inhibitor of the DAO enzyme. This partially explains why people with a histamine-intolerance are more likely to experience the symptoms associated with “wine intolerance” while drinking red wine compared to when they’re ingesting any other type of histamine-rich food.

Granted, some ingredients may not have high histamine levels in themselves, but they can actually trigger the production of histamines by the body. Citrus foods, for instance, can activate the release of histamine directly into the body. These are referred to as histamine-releasing foods. The histamines that the body releases in response to a trigger are called endogenous histamines since they already exist in the body.

Endogenous histamines play a critical role in the body’s immune response to foreign pathogens, whether they’re from allergens that come into contact with your skin, or from those that you consume in the food you eat.

Examples of histamine-releasing foods include:

  • Shellfish
  • MSG
  • Bananas
  • Chocolate
  • Cow’s milk
  • Nuts
  • Papaya
  • Strawberries
  • Several different preservatives and dyes

Histamine-rich foods, on the other hand, already contain high levels of histamines, which can enter the body when they are eaten and typically don’t trigger the release of histamine. These are classified as exogenous histamine sources. Here’s a list of histamine-rich foods that you need to be wary of:

  • Wine and other alcoholic beverages like champagne and beer
  • Fermented dairy products like sour cream, cheese, and yogurt
  • Fermented grains like those used to make sourdough bread
  • Fermented or cured meats like salami, sausages, and fermented ham
  • Fermented soy foods like miso, tempeh, natto, and soy sauce
  • Fermented vegetables like kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Salted, frozen, or canned fish like tuna and sardines
  • Eggplant
  • Spinach
  • Tomato ketchup
  • Tomatoes
  • Nuts
  • Smoked fish
  • Vinegar

How to Increase the Size of Your Histamine Bucket

The best way to make your bucket bigger and more efficient is by changing your diet and lifestyle. One of the most effective ways to do this would be to eliminate histamine-rich foods and histamine-releasing foods.

Research shows that adopting a histamine-free diet is the number one choice for individuals who experience histamine intolerance. This means avoiding pickled vegetables, cured meats, cheese, and fermented dairy products in general, and essentially every other source of exogenous histamines from your diet.

It also means eliminating foods like chocolate, strawberries, and nuts, all of which trigger the release of endogenous histamines.

You could also go a step further and incorporate pharmaceutical histamine blockers into your lifestyle. Here’s how they work:

  • H1 antagonists – these bind to H1 receptors in the mast cells, endothelium, and smooth muscle. They target the allergic reactions in the respiratory tract, e.g., sneezing, congestion, itching, bronchoconstriction, and dyspnea. A common side effect of this category of antihistamines is that they cause drowsiness. Examples of H1 antagonists include Benadryl, Hismanal, and Zyrtec.
  • H2 antagonists – these bind to H2 receptors in the gastrointestinal tract. They target the allergic reactions that cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, and meteorism. Side effects include insomnia and constipation. Examples of H2 antagonists include Zantac, Tagamet, and Pepcid.
  • H3 antagonists – these bind to H3 receptors in the central nervous system. They target the allergic reactions that cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, vertigo, arousal, and those that affect the circadian rhythm. Side effects include anxiety, insomnia, and headaches. They have also been shown to affect people with psychiatric disorders like ADHD, Schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s.

Keep in mind that certain medications can affect how your body interacts with histamines, and end up shrinking your histamine bucket in the process. They do this either by promoting the release of histamine or inhibiting the production and release of DAO. Some of the common ones include:

  • Muscle relaxants e.g. D-tubocurarine, alcuronium, and pancuronium
  • Antibiotics e.g. choroquine, clavulanic acid, pentamidin, isoniazid, and cefotiam
  • Antidepressants e.g. amitriptyline
  • Broncholytics, e.g., aminophylline
  • Antihypertensive medication, e.g., dihydralazine, alprenolol, and verapamil

Natural Histamine Blockers – What Are They

The role of antihistamines is to minimize the adverse effects that histamines have on the body. Over-the-counter and prescription antihistamines are available at every drug store, the downside to these medications is the unpleasant side effects that many people experience.

Natural histamine blockers are an alternative to pharmaceutical antihistamines. They have very few, if any, adverse side effects compared to their pharmaceutical counterparts.

Below are six foods and plant extracts that have been reported to be quite effective in blocking the effects of histamine.

Stinging Nettle

Urtica dioica, or stinging nettle as it is commonly referred to, is quite popular in natural medicine, and may also have natural histamine-blocking properties. The irony, however, is that the very same plant that triggers hives when its fine hairs come into contact with your skin is the very same one that works to rectify the problem.

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In one particular study, 58 percent of the participants who ingested 300 mg of freeze-dried stinging nettles daily, found that their symptoms improved dramatically compared to when they ingested the placebo. Use the leaves to brew tea or cook them like greens. The hairs on the surface lose their sting when cooked.

Butterbur

This is a marsh plant that grows abundantly throughout Europe as well as in specific regions of North America and Asia. Evidence-based research reveals that it may be effective in treating the intensity and frequency of migraine attacks, as well as in relieving the symptoms of nasal allergies brought on by histamines.

butterbur plant image

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, most people tolerate the plant extract quite well. However, it may cause side effects such as drowsiness, difficulty breathing, diarrhea, itchy eyes, headache, and belching.

It is also worth noting that plant extracts from butterbur may have alkaloids that have long been known to cause cancer and liver damage. Nonetheless, there are plant extracts available that don’t have alkaloids, although no studies have been done to investigate the long term effects of using them.

Bromelain

This is a compound that’s mainly found in pineapples, although it is also available in the form of supplements. It has proven to be quite effective in the treatment of histamine-induced inflammation and respiratory distress when 400-500 mg is consumed daily.

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It may cause the following side effects in some individuals:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Digestive issues
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle

Don’t take Bromelain supplements if you have a pineapple allergy.

Probiotics

These are a combination of yeasts and live bacteria that help to keep your digestive system healthy and not cause the body to produce histamines. The most common probiotic is no doubt Lactobacillus, which you’ll find in fermented foods such as yogurt, Bifidobacterium, which you’ll find in certain dairy products and Saccharomyces boulardii which is a type of yeast.

probiotics pills image

Each of these works to boost the immune system, which in turn helps the body ward off allergies hence its histamine blocking properties.

Vitamin C

Speaking of immune-boosting compounds, Vitamin C does so much more than just strengthen the immune system. It is also a powerful antihistamine.

vitamin c lemons image

In a 2018 study to investigate the effectiveness of Vitamin C in the treatment of allergies brought about by histamine intolerance, researchers found that oxidative stress plays a major role in the flare-ups.

Vitamin C, a known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, manages excessive inflammation without inhibiting the immune system’s ability to combat harmful compounds that get into the body. Experts recommend taking 2 grams of Vitamin C daily to act as a natural histamine blocker. Fruit and vegetable sources of vitamin C include:

  • Broccoli
  • Bell peppers
  • Citrus Fruits
  • Cauliflower
  • Cantaloupe melon
  • Winter squash
  • Strawberries
  • Kiwifruit

Quercetin

This antioxidant flavonoid compound is present in several different types of plants and foods. According to research, incorporating it into your diet can alleviate allergy symptoms due to its antihistamine and anti-allergic properties. Examples of foods and herbs that have quercetin include:

  • Apples
  • Broccoli
  • Black tea
  • Buckwheat tea
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Red onions
  • Peppers

Quercetin is also available for purchase as a supplement online or from your local health store.

Minimizing Triggers of Histamine Intolerance in Wine

Wine has several potential allergens that could all be potentially responsible for wine intolerance. They include:

  • Histamines present in the grapes used to make wine
  • Naturally-occurring or artificially-introduced sulfites
  • The yeast and yeast byproducts used in the winemaking process
  • Specific proteins found in the grapes used to make it
  • Fining agents added during the production process

If you’re not prepared to give up wine, here is an effective alternative to avoid the side effects that come with having a wine sensitivity. You can conveniently remove the histamines and sulfites present in all wines by using wine purifiers like The Wave™ or The Wand™.

 The Wave™

the wave™ wine purifier

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The Wand™

the wand™ wine purifier

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They quickly and efficiently filter out the histamines and sulfites from the wine without removing any of the good things in wine like the tannins, antioxidants and resveratrol. So, you can comfortably enjoy a nice glass of Cabernet Sauvignon without any of the unpleasant symptoms associated with it.

A Holistic Approach for Dealing With Histamine Intolerance

The first line of defense against the brutal symptoms of allergic reactions would be to avoid the allergen altogether, or at least, minimize exposure as much as you possibly can.

Dealing with the symptoms of histamine intolerance can be a pain, to say the least. Taking pharmaceutical drugs every time your body reacts to a seemingly harmless allergen may not be for everyone, either.

Natural histamine blockers may be a helpful solution for anyone looking for a long term remedy to their allergy problems, without having to give up the things they love – like wine!

Using the natural remedies detailed in this guide, alongside the wine purifiers like The Wave™ and The Wand™ can provide a convenient and effective drug-free alternative to dealing with those undesired wine side effects.