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Histamines Hidden in Plain Sight  

Histamines – Runny nose, itchy eyes, red flushing on the skin, itchy ears, headaches, and sensitive skin… sound familiar? Many times, we can be consuming foods that don’t necessarily emit a direct response but are more accumulative and can exhibit histamine or a histamine like response. What do we mean by this? Well, let’s first take a re-visit at what ‘histamines’ are, we have covered them briefly in other articles and podcasts before, but who wants to dig through for a snippet when we can explain below right?!  

What are ‘Histamines’? 

Histamines are organic compounds found in plant foods, bacteria, and some forms of insect venoms too. Histamines belong to an organic group of compounds called ‘amines’ and are based on the chemical structure of ammonia and derived from the amino acid – histidine.  

Histamines have a long history of exploration and understanding, taking us back to 1910 in an age of medicinal discovery, is where George Barger and Henry Dale first isolated a histamine presence from a fungus and the following year isolated it in animal tissue.[1] Histamine interestingly is easier to grasp in the picture of Nettle leaves, those little, tiny needles that cause the itching and irritation when we brush up against them contain histamines. [2] 

Later, it was discovered that histamines are present in almost all human tissues, it is stored in the granules of specific Mast Cell tissues. These granules also occur in our blood cells too, which we will come to see, is important for the human immune system and its active response to threats. When histamine is stored in its granule like state its relatively inactive, however, once released from the granules, elicits the following types of responses:  

  • Contraction of smooth muscle such as seen in the lungs, stomach, and uterus.  
  • Lowers blood pressure (hello headaches)  
  • Increases heart rate.  
  • Increases gastric acid secretion into the stomach. 
  • Dilates blood vessels – this allows for better permeability.  
  • Acts as a neurotransmitter across nerve cells, conveying chemical messaging 

This explains why you get the hyper state of heart rate, headaches, sweating, flushing, and itching as well. [3] 

What is the purpose of this? 

Mast Cells – in tissues when at the site of damage to the tissue, release histamine from the granules to notify the immune system of compromise and initiate inflammation to the site. The increase of blood vessels at the site of compromise and injury means that white blood cells and essential fluids like plasma come in to protect and begin the healing of the injury. That’s why wounds are often inflamed, red, and can be itchy when beginning the healing process. [4]  

What we see in the case of an allergic reaction to something – we usually see this present in an influx of antigens from the environment, diet, and possibly a defensive insect. Antigens are just foreign objects that initiate an immune response in the body. Our Antibodies that respond to antigens are bound with our Mast Cells to initiate the histamine release that supports our immune cell at the same time as they bind to the antigens to effectively remove them from the body.  

A classic and extreme example of this process for reference is seen in an immediate immune response that can be fatal – Anaphylaxis. Where individuals can be most susceptible in areas of known allergens like insect stings – bees, for example, peanut allergies, and other commonly known allergens that elicit this extreme response. [5] 

Accumulating of Histamines Without Knowing?  

Because so many foods naturally contain histamine in them – it can be difficult to avoid these compounds in our everyday life. For many, when ingested, an enzyme we produce in response to their presence called ‘Diamine Oxidase’ (DAO) comes in to mitigate what is ingested. When we are deficient in this DAO enzyme, we can struggle to breakdown histamine and it can thus, accumulate extracellularly. Meaning that, as we spoke above, isn’t bound into the encapsulated granules for timed release when needed and we begin to instead get the systemic and untargeted histamine response until the body can begin to clear it. [6] 

That’s why, for some people you can consume things like wine, beer, and fermented foods which often have the highest presence of histamines in them and have absolutely no histamine antigen effect, while others just having a small amount of this induces a flushing, itching reaction to the exact same drinks and foods. Quite fascinating really.  

Leaky Cells  

There is such an instance where people can develop “leaking Mast Cells” or “Mast Cell Degranulation” where the person may not have consumed histamine rich foods or accumulated high amounts of histamines across a short period of time that would justify a histamine reaction, however, still get one. What’s happening here?  

In this instance – Mast Cells can have poor membrane integrity and inadvertently as a result, leak histamines into the tissue and bloodstream causing low-grade immune responses like that of the flushing immune reactions. [7] 

  • Itchy eyes.  
  • Snotty nose.  
  • Rashes.  
  • Skin sensitivity.  
  • Flushing.  
  • Lightheadedness (a drop of blood pressure) 
  • Nausea – (increased gastric stomach acid) 
  • Hypotension and loss of consciousness.  
  • Diarrhea 
  • Abdominal cramping.  

There are many reasons that Mast Cells can lose their integrity, often it is seen in nutrient-deficient states. High turnover daily of water-soluble vitamins, especially in the realm of vitamin B as a highly valuable and well-spent commodity in the biology of humans, is shown to be intimately involved in mast cell integrity. [8] More on this below…

High Histamine Foods  

We can support the status of histamine load in the body through a few methods, but first, we must approach it from one of the easiest ways possible – foods.  

There are many foods that are best avoided if you are having a hard time getting a handle on excessive histamine responses. If you know that you are emitting or are allergic to certain foods, then it’s obvious that you are going to want to avoid them when and where possible. However, many histamine rich foods are hidden in plain sight. Here are the highest histamine foods: [8] 

(we can do up a table on low AMINE foods and their alternatives in another blog to follow on from this)  

  • Alcohol and fermented drinks.  
  • Fermented foods – yoghurtsauerkraut, kimchi etc.  
  • Eggplant.  
  • Avocados.  
  • Spinach.  
  • High processed and cured meats.  
  • Aged cheese.  
  • Shellfish and some fish.  
  • Legumes – Kidney beans.  

In our follow up histamine foods and foods that don’t contain it but can trigger a histamine response, we will go into far more detail. But for now, these are the major culprits you can start to avoid right off the cuff.  

What else can you do?  

There are a few areas you can begin to approach this too and they come in the form of nutrients and avoiding nutrient blockers.  

When we are looking at what helps to remove excess histamine from the body, we mentioned above that one enzyme was crucial for this, that enzyme is Diamine Oxidase (DAO); there is one other that is capable to a lesser extent and that is histamine N-methyltransferase (HNMT). You can look after these processes by providing the tools required in multiple areas:  

  • Zinc, Copper, Vitamin B, and C all work from our diet to assist with Enzyme production and maintenance. [9] 
  • Imbalance in estrogen and Progesterone has been shown to influence DAO capacity through fluctuation of histamine levels. [10] 
  • Avoid DAO Blockers around the consumption of foods higher in histamine/Amines. These include alcohol, black tea, and mate tea. [11] 

It is also important to take care of the necessary requirements of the Mast Cell nutrients as seen in their integrity requirements for Vitamin B6 from the diet and Vitamin D. Mast Cell granules take up vitamin D through the epidermis (skin) to ensure that their integrity is maintained. Soak up some sunshine but be sun safe of course in the process and follow your recommended government sun safe guidelines!  

How do Antihistamines Work? 

Antihistamines can be incredible tools to use when you need to get a handle on a snotty situation quickly and your eyes feel like you just dived face-first into a sandcastle. But now that you have learned how histamines work in the body; how do antihistamines work?  

Antihistamines work through histamine receptors – Histamines usually bind with histamine receptors on cells and the communication and cascade for action begins for the immune system. There are four types of these receptors:  

  • H1.  
  • H2.  
  • H3.  
  • H4.  

Easy enough to remember! The antihistamines you use to block allergy symptoms, block the H1 receptor, and inhibit the binding of histamine to this receptor. Often rapidly relieving this flushing allergen response. There is another histamine antagonist that is available that binds with the H2 histamine receptor to block the binding of histamine to the receptor, preventing the excretion of gastric acid, these are used mostly in patients with Peptic Ulcers. [12] 

Take-Home? 

The take-home from all the above is that there can sometimes be a hidden and yet totally obvious underlying issue to the symptoms you may be experiencing that you can’t quite put your finger on. Low-grade inflammation, constant year-round allergy type symptoms, reactions to some foods, and not others, and feeling just not as 100% as you should be.  

This is an extremely easy area to look at and address if you don’t yet have an obvious answer to a cascade of quirky symptoms that may not fit one symptom picture. Ensure you are eating an adequate healthy diet rich in the micronutrients that are essential for a healthy histamine response and avoid foods that may be overloading your body’s tolerance and capacity to clear them. Work closely with your health care professional to address your concerns and where you want to work on these areas and why.  

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any condition. Please consult with your health care professional before making any changes to your current lifestyle.  

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References:  

  1. Nature: volume 16 | number 10 | october 2010 nature medicine
  2. Roschek B Jr, Fink RC, McMichael M, Alberte RS. Nettle extract (Urtica dioica) affects key receptors and enzymes associated with allergic rhinitis. Phytother Res. 2009 Jul;23(7):920-6. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2763. PMID: 19140159.
  3. https://www.britannica.com/science/itching
  4. Oskeritzian C. A. (2012). Mast Cells and Wound Healing. Advances in wound care, 1(1), 23–28. https://doi.org/10.1089/wound.2011.0357
  5. Peavy, R. D., & Metcalfe, D. D. (2008). Understanding the mechanisms of anaphylaxis. Current opinion in allergy and clinical immunology, 8(4), 310–315. https://doi.org/10.1097/ACI.0b013e3283036a90
  6. McGrath, A. P., Hilmer, K. M., Collyer, C. A., Shepard, E. M., Elmore, B. O., Brown, D. E., Dooley, D. M., & Guss, J. M. (2009). Structure and inhibition of human diamine oxidase. Biochemistry, 48(41), 9810–9822. https://doi.org/10.1021/bi9014192
  7. Akin, C., Valent, P., & Metcalfe, D. D. (2010). Mast cell activation syndrome: Proposed diagnostic criteria. The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, 126(6), 1099–104.e4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2010.08.035
  8. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/039463201002300403
  9. Relationship between Vitamin C, Mast Cells and Inflammation January 2016 DOI: 10.4172/2155- 9600.1000456
  10. https://www.larabriden.com/the-curious-link-between-estrogen-and-histamine-intolerance/
  11. Comas-Basté, O., Sánchez-Pérez, S., Veciana-Nogués, M. T., Latorre-Moratalla, M., & Vidal-Carou, M. (2020). Histamine Intolerance: The Current State of the Art. Biomolecules, 10(8), 1181. https://doi.org/10.3390/biom10081181
  12. Liu ZQ, Li XX, Qiu SQ, Yu Y, Li MG, Yang LT, Li LJ, Wang S, Zheng PY, Liu ZG, Yang PC. Vitamin D contributes to mast cell stabilization. Allergy. 2017 Aug;72(8):1184-1192. doi: 10.1111/all.13110. Epub 2017 Jan 17. PMID: 27998003.
  13. Church, M. K., & Church, D. S. (2013). Pharmacology of antihistamines. Indian journal of dermatology, 58(3), 219–224. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5154.110832