I discovered that I had Histamine Intolerance while traveling throughout Europe in 2016. I can remember my Eureka! moment while reading about histamine in the book, The Spark in the Machine by Daniel Keown, an M.D./Acupuncturist. In this landmark book, the author explains, from a biomedical perspective, how acupuncture works and how the ancient Chinese were so brilliant to have figured out the complexities of this medicine’s interaction with the human mind-body-spirit many thousands of years ago. And more, that Western medicine, in its relative infancy, is now catching up to this ancient technology and is now able to verify, through reproducible science and medical instruments and technology, that this medicine is very real and equally powerful.
My epiphany came when I was reading the chapter about the liver. The topic of histamine came up so many times I started to wonder why I didn’t learn much about histamine with respect to the liver while in my Master’s Degree Program for Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. When the author began to explain, in detail, how histamine is most abundant in aged and fermented foods (the foods I ate the most of, in the name of “good health”), and the symptoms of excess histamine in the body illustrated all of the mysterious, chronic health issues I’d been dealing with for most of my life, I felt that I had won the lottery. More so because I finally understood what was wrong with me. The more pressing issue of what to eat and drink now that I was in the holy land of ferments—Germany—was another issue (I had been eating jars of sauerkraut daily while staying in Berlin, with the [now erroneous] satisfaction of feeding myself healthy fermented probiotic-rich cabbage. Boy, was I wrong. And no more beer–or rather, “bier”).
The rest of my European travels turned into my obsessive study of histamine. With my head in books, paperwork, and online searches on my iPhone, I renamed my Euro Trip “The Histamine Tour of 2016.” My boyfriend joined me halfway through and was disturbed by my disinterest in the sights and sounds of Europe. I had to repeatedly explain that I was finally given the answer to my biggest question in life (“what the eff is wrong with me?”) which had been on loop in my head for decades, and I wasn’t going to let even the breathtaking views offered by The London Eye get in the way of my life-changing discovery.
Plus, I didn’t want to have another, “histamine attack” (hot flushes, itchy and prickly skin everywhere on my body—which can feel like a ‘niacin flush’—sharp stomach pains, joint pain, acid reflux, nasal congestion, sneezing, dry and/or watery eyes) while we were at a restaurant, which would ruin the experience. So I knew I had to learn everything about histamine, all the foods to avoid, and what is safe to eat, like NOW.
And I’ve been at it ever since. I have amassed loads of research, data, anecdotal evidence, and personal experimentation and experiences. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Histamine intolerance is a growing epidemic. Unfortunately, many health practitioners either do not know of it, or worse—don’t believe it is a real disorder.
Let’s start from the beginning:
Histamine is a chemical that is both made by the body and found in certain foods, naturally.
In the body, histamine is produced by a type of white blood cell (a mast cell) and has a crucial role in our immune system. Histamine is what causes symptoms of allergies, which is why one takes anti-histamines for relief. Histamine is also naturally occurring in food, as a by-product of fermentation and aging (think: yeast in bread, aged meat and cheese, yogurt, wine, beer, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, miso) and when food begins to spoil or decay.
When there is excess histamine in the body (this can be from a multitude of factors, but for the sake of simplicity here, I will only focus on high-histamine foods) and the body can’t break the histamine down fast enough (again, multi-factorial, but just stay with me), some people experience what feels like allergic reactions.
People with histamine intolerance experience adverse reactions to what is considered “normal” levels of histamine in food. It’s a two-fold process:
- There is an increase of unbound histamine in the body.
- The body cannot degrade this excess histamine quickly enough.
Therefore, the excess histamine, which is normally dealt with and contained in the liver, overflows into the blood, causing systemic symptoms of an allergic response.
Common symptoms of histamine intolerance include:
Itchy skin, flushing, hives, rashes, acne, eczema, headaches, nasal congestion, sinusitis, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, anxiety, chronic irritability/frustration/anger, insomnia, nausea, acid reflux, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, and dizziness, to name a few.
The difference between an intolerance vs an allergy.
While all of the above seems like a true allergy—it’s not. Hence the name histamine “intolerance”. True food allergies involve different pathways and immunoglobulins in the body (IgE), whereas histamine intolerance does not involve such mediators and pathways. Also, histamine intolerance is influenced more by the amount of histamine ingested, as your body may be able to handle more at certain times than others, while true IgE food allergies can cause allergic reactions, no matter how much of the food is ingested. So, there is more potential ‘wiggle-room’, experimentation, and freedom with an intolerance, versus an allergy. Finally, food allergies can be very serious and even fatal, if someone goes into anaphylactic shock. This can occur from a mere molecule of the allergen ingested, when the allergy is severe enough. This is not the case with histamine intolerance. So, the only way of truly knowing if it’s a food allergy versus a food intolerance versus histamine intolerance is to have a food allergy test (IgE blood test or skin-prick test).
If you are in fact histamine intolerant, it is crucial to reduce and/or avoid high-histamine foods, temporarily. This can be tricky, as not only is there a wealth of conflicting information about histamine foods and avoidance lists online, but each individual will have varying thresholds of the amount of histamine they can tolerate at any given time, as well as which foods even cause a reaction to begin with.
Dealing with it.
The best strategy for dealing with histamine intolerance two-fold:
1) Avoid all fermented food and drink—which have guaranteed high levels of histamine—temporarily. This will allow your system to calm the eff down.
2) Heal the liver. People with Histamine Intolerance have congested livers. If the liver is congested and over-worked, it simply cannot process histamine and so it spills out into your bloodstream, causing pseudo-allergy inflammatory symptoms. One way to heal the liver is to get regular acupuncture from a skilled acupuncturist. Acupuncture can assess and treat the organ imbalances, contributing to both the cause and symptoms of histamine intolerance.
As you avoid the inflammatory histamine-rich foods, you allow your body to begin to calm the systemic inflammation, while also simultaneously healing and strengthening your gut and body as a whole with the use of Chinese Medicine.
I am thrilled to report that I am healed of Histamine Intolerance today. I still have minor symptoms here and there, but am 95% improved. I attribute a great deal of my recovery to regular and frequent acupuncture, prioritizing spending time outdoors in nature, and adopting a more ancestral diet, which includes dense whole-food nutrition, wild foods, and organic grass-fed and wild animal foods. I refused to be a prisoner to restrictive diets and conflicting online food lists which engendered fear of eating (especially nutritious foods) and social isolation any longer. That’s no way to live. Not only have I recovered from histamine intolerance, but I’ve adopted a whole new way of eating and living, which is a definite upgrade: enjoying so much more culinary variety, spending more time in nature (making me realize how amazing it is and how nature-deficient we all are), and enjoying social get-togethers of eating and drinking without fear and consequence. Since Histamine Intolerance is a systemic disorder, the best way to heal from it, is to treat it systemically. For me, this meant reframing my healing approach to include more and not less—more whole foods, more nutrition, more nature and sunlight, more socialization and human connection, and more joy.