It was another taco bar night at our house, the kitchen countertop cluttered with taco shells, chips, and various toppings including a popular favorite: guacamole. As soon as the kids filled their plates and settled in their seats at the bar, I piled some guac on top of my nachos and dug in. Within a matter of minutes, my stomach was full and heavy, and I was nauseous. I figured it was a fluke, until it happened again the very next week. (Yes, we have a lot of taco nights.)
Maybe you’ve noticed symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, dizziness, heartburn, or an itchy mouth or throat after eating. Does your nose run or grow stuffy while you sip a glass of wine? Have you ever had nausea after eating a salad or a bowl of tomato sauce laden pasta? What about increased anxiety after enjoying a steak or a slice of chocolate cake? I know, I thought comfort foods were supposed to make us feel better, not terrible. There are a myriad of symptoms a person can experience as a result of a histamine intolerance.
What Is A Histamine Intolerance?
A histamine intolerance occurs when “accumulated histamine and the capacity for histamine degradation” becomes imbalanced. According to ENT and Allergy, histamine “is ingested via food and stored in nearly all tissues of the body.” It plays an important role, to “keep your organs functioning and body working healthily.”
How common is a histamine intolerance? No one knows for sure, but we do know that “almost 20% of the Westernized world’s population suffers from some type of food intolerance.” The current estimate is that 1-3% of people have a histamine intolerance, but this number may increase as the condition becomes better understood and diagnostic tools become available to medical professionals.
The Symptoms Of A Histamine Intolerance
When a histamine imbalance occurs, a person might experience an array of symptoms that can range in severity. Some may experience “hives, itchy or flushed skin, red eyes, facial swelling, runny nose and congestion, or asthma attacks.” There could also be “a drop in blood pressure, heart palpitations, and anxiety or panic attacks.” A common symptom is gastrointestinal issues such as bloating, stomach pain, constipation, and diarrhea. I experience ringing in my ears, dizziness, anxiety, and heart-racing.
Why Some Develop A Histamine Intolerance
There are several possible reasons a person develops a histamine intolerance. Certain medications can block DAO (diamine oxidase, which breaks down histamine in the digestive tract) from properly working. The list is extensive and includes antidepressants, pain medications, and antibiotics. Gastrointestinal issues, like leaky gut syndrome or bacterial overgrowth, can inhibit DAO from working properly to break down histamine. The intake of histamine-laden foods, DAO-blocking foods, and histamine-triggering-release foods can contribute to the intolerance. My own dietitian suggested that genetics can play a role. Liver conditions, deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals (B-6, C, zinc, or copper), chronic stress, injuries or traumas, and alcohol consumption or liver issues may also be possible catalysts.
How A Histamine Intolerance Is Discovered
I wish I could tell you there was a blood test or classic symptoms, but the reality is that discovering a person has a histamine intolerance is very difficult. The symptoms aren’t always consistent and can mimic other conditions such as gastrointestinal diseases and food allergies. There’s no single, reliable test. Some have been diagnosed by an allergist, others by a functional medicine doctor or dietitian, and some figure it out on their own after keeping a detailed food-and-symptom journal and doing an elimination diet. I know several people who eventually found they had a histamine intolerance after spending thousands of dollars on medical appointments and tests to eliminate other possibilities.
How A Histamine Intolerance Is Treated
This is also complicated. A low-histamine diet is quite restrictive. Can any of us avoid wine, chocolate, grilled foods, strawberries, cheese, eggs, and many, many others indefinitely? This isn’t realistic, nor does it seem pleasant. In the histamine intolerance community, some have done their own research and opted to eat a lower-histamine diet, take DAO supplements and probiotics, and carefully monitor their “histamine bucket” (the among of histamine foods they consume in a day or week) to avoid overflow (reactions). Others have sought help from experienced allergists, dietitians, or functional medicine doctors. Because there’s still so much to research, discover, and try, unfortunately, there really isn’t a one-size-fits all plan.
My histamine intolerance was discovered by accident. I was working with a registered dietitian after being diagnosed with lupus. I was keeping a detailed food and symptom journal. When we looked over my journal, we saw that on the days I was experiencing a myriad of disruptive symptoms, I was consuming foods like nuts, grilled meals, strawberry smoothies, and other classic high-histamine foods. When I experimented with eating low-histamine for days at a time, my symptoms subsided. After my dietitian realized what was going on, I started on a lower-histamine eating plan and began taking some supplements to help my body properly process histamines.
I’m thankful to have discovered why I was feeling so terrible, to the point I could barely get out of bed and wasn’t sleeping. However, this journey has been difficult. Not everyone understands histamine intolerance or believes it’s a real thing. However, for me, the proof is in the (non-dairy) pudding. I’m glad I advocated for myself, listened to my body, and am figuring out how to feel better, stronger, and far less sick.