Achoo! Repeat 7x. Excuse me, yuck! I need a tissue. As I write this, autumn is in full swing. The ragweed pollen is triggering a histamine reaction in me that’s causing my nose to fire away like a cannonball. But over-the-top histamine reactions aren’t just for stopping to smell the roses during peak seasonal allergy time. As a Nurse Practitioner, I’m witnessing what seems like more pervasive histamine reactions such as Eosinophilic Esophagitis or EOE. EOE is when your esophagus becomes inflamed due to a histamine response that has gone haywire and potentially closes up. 

So don’t get all choked up because in this post, I’ll cover:

  • What are histamines? 
  • What is histamine intolerance?
  • What are the symptoms of histamine intolerance?
  • What causes histamine intolerance?
  • Dietary influences on histamine levels
  • The root cause of histamine intolerance
  • How functional medicine can improve histamine intolerance

What Are Histamines?

You’ve heard of anti-histamines. So naturally, there must be something called histamines that make you sneeze and have watery itchy eyes and other symptoms. But histamines are not all bad. They are a chemical that helps communication in the brain (neurotransmitter). 

As for why you can have a sneeze attack, you can say that histamines are the police of your immune system. When your immune system encounters something it doesn’t recognize as friendly, histamine is released. It regulates these antigen invaders and activates immune cells

Another reason you shouldn’t think of histamine as a bad thing is that it plays a big role in several bodily functions. You obviously know how it’s involved in allergy responses. But did you know it also regulates your stomach acid? 

But while histamine isn’t inherently bad, many people don’t process this natural compound properly. This is what’s called histamine intolerance. 

What is Histamine Intolerance?

Have you ever broken out in hives or had itchy skin after eating something or touching a plant? This is a sign of histamine intolerance. If you have a sneeze attack, another clear sign of an intense histamine reaction, is that normal? Does that mean you are allergic to histamines? Well, not exactly. You see, you can’t really be allergic to histamines. It’s more accurate to say that you have a hyper histamine response, aka histamine intolerance. This chemical chain reaction response in your body triggers an excessive inflammatory response. 

Let’s say that when you drink red wine, it flushes your skin and you break out with patchy, itchy skin. It could be that the wine itself is high in histamines. It could also be that you don’t have enough enzymes to break down the histamine. 

Histamine Intolerance Symptoms

Like the Nyquil commercial suggests (“The nighttime sniffling, sneezing, coughing, aching, stuffy head, fever….”), histamine intolerance can wreak havoc on the sinuses and then some. It also affects the GI system, potentially causing 

symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, and cramps. Not only that histamine intolerance can cause the bladder blues, triggering symptoms that mimic a urinary tract infection.

Then there are the skin conditions like hives and EOE and other inflammatory freak-outs. Nurses, doctors and patients who must be in a medical setting all day are susceptible to histamine reactions. That’s not all because of eating high-histamine foods (more on this below). The culprit is mold, dust and pollen lurking in the HVAC system. If you are prone to being stuffy, use a humidifier if you’re super stuffy or sniffly. 

Dietary Influences on Histamine Intolerance

It’s not just pollen that’s high in histamine. Many foods can trigger a heavy histamine reaction because they are high in histamines. The biggest offenders are aged cheeses and cured meats. Wouldn’t you know it, the healthiest foods by and large, contain the lowest amount of histamine. So eat plenty of fruits and veggies, gluten-free grains (wild rice, quinoa, millet) and lean proteins (ground turkey, chicken). 

Other foods to include are cold-water oily fish like salmon (because of their high omega-3 content); bee pollen, raw local honey; tomato paste, nettle leaf, ginger, and turmeric. 

As a research study in the journal Nutrients explains, here’s what affects histamine reactions in your body after you eat or drink:

“A disproportionate amount of histamine in the body is suspected to result from the consumption of histamine-containing foods or drinks, and the reduced ability of enzymes to digest and degrade histamine. In foods, the manufacturing process, the cleanliness of materials, the microbial composition, and the fermentation influence the amount of histamine contained.”

What Is The Root Cause of Histamine Intolerance?

Why is it that one person can eat a whole tube of salami and not have any histamine reactions? (By the way, don’t try that at home, you’ll feel miserable). Meanwhile, someone else can have just a wee nibble and get all itchy and splotchy. What gives? 

Blame it on something called mast cell activation. If histamine the emergency response of the immune system, mast cells are the alarm system. Mast cells release several chemicals, including and primarily histamine when they sense an invader. Some people have a response so severe to antigens they have what’s called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome or MCAS. This is when the mast cells release excessively high chemicals like histamine. The reaction is so severe that people with MCAS may not be able to walk down the laundry detergent aisle of a supermarket because the synthetic fragrance may trigger an allergic reaction. 

Functional Medicine To The Rescue

If you suspect you have a histamine intolerance, I can help. Not only do I have an expert-level understanding of histamines and allergies because of my experience as a Nurse Practitioner, but I’m also a functional medicine practitioner. 

Through diet coaching, diagnostic lab testing, supplements, and lifestyle changes, you can minimize histamine reactions and regain your quality of life. 

Let’s get you back to living your best life. 

The first journey to doing just that is to get in touch with me through the Diabetes & Wellness Clinic in Norfolk, NE. 

Until next time, 

Jenna Witt, NP