Joan Rothchild Hardin
Have you been finding that exposure to an ever-increasing number of foods, smells, or chemicals causes skin outbreaks, stuffy sinuses, a headache, brain fog, exhaustion, an upset GI tract, or just an overall unwell feeling? If you notice evidence that your body has become chronically inflamed and you have an array of symptoms from this list, you may be struggling with histamine intolerance. SYMPTOMS OF HISTAMINE INTOLERANCE
You may think of histamine only as the “cause” of unpleasant allergic responses and reach for an antihistamine drug, but histamine molecules are actually vital to our health. Our bodies produce them primarily to serve three essential functions – to work as:
A chemical messenger (a neurotransmitter) that carries, boosts, and modulates signals between neurons and other cells in the body
A component of stomach acid that helps to digest food
An inflammatory response mechanism that dilates blood vessels so white blood cells can quickly reach and neutralize damaging invaders
It’s not that histamine intolerant people develop a sensitivity to histamine. Instead, their bodies are unable to break down histamine molecules and degrade them efficiently so they become overwhelmed by excessive amounts of histamine. When histamine levels become too high, they make us miserable and can even cause death (by anaphylaxis). (Axe, 2017)
CONFUSION … AND HELP
If you decide you want to learn more about histamine intolerance and google other writers on the topic, you’ll find some disagreement about the four diets mentioned in Axe’s chart above – and also conflicting information about which foods are best avoided and which help heal histamine intolerance.
Health journalist Yasmina Ykelenstam’s blog, Healing Histamine, is the resource I’m finding most sensible and helpful as I work on reducing the chronic inflammation in my own body and my increasing number of food sensitivities.
Ykelenstam has many years of research and international news production experience (60 Minutes, CNN, the BBC) so knows the importance of researching the facts behind a story. She says, “Not only do I back up each claim on my site with numerous studies, I also make sure to get out there and put my journalism background to good use, by interviewing the histamine/mast cell/mastocytosis/inflammatory field’s leading medical experts, best selling authors and healers.” (Ykelenstam, 2017A) The Low Histamine Chef, Yasmina Ykelenstam
This is Ykelenstam’s story in her own words:
“In 2008, after 20 years of being misdiagnosed with everything under the sun, I became so ill that I was forced to quit the career of a lifetime. I’d seen 68 doctors by this point and had been misdiagnosed with (some on the basis of tests and others on symptoms): recurrent sinusitis that required surgery (excess histamine), multiple sclerosis (I refused the MRI to confirm, turned out to be histamine causing symptoms), lupus, hepatitis (liver enzyme fluctuations are found in those with mast cell activation), lyme disease, kidney failure, liver failure, leukemia, ovarian cancer, breast cancer, uterine fibroids (these I had but they went away with a change in diet), endometriosis (might have had but refused surgery, no symptoms in the last five years), chronic urinary tract infections (negative cultures but still prescribed daily antibiotics for years turned out to be oxalic acid sensitivity), bladder cancer (when they couldn’t explain what was wrong), diabetes 1 & 2 (so many yearly tests for this, turned out to be oxalic acid sensitivity), STIs (oxalic acid), pelvic inflammatory disease (oxalic acid), brain tumor (suggested to me because of chronic migraine not responsive to any meds), bipolar disorder (prescribed multiple meds for this), generalized anxiety disorder (multiple meds), unipolar depression and borderline personality disorder (multiple meds). All psych symptoms resolved through dietary changes. I had two operations (breast and cervix – one of which proved completely unnecessary) and was told I needed another six, which I refused.
“It’s only fair to mention most of the doctors I saw were in under developed countries in the Middle East and North Africa or in the south of Spain where I grew up. I have great respect for doctors who are compassionate and competent but sadly they were few and far between for the first 38 years of my life. (Ykelenstam, 2017A)
COMMON SYMPTOMS OF HISTAMINE RELATED DISORDERS – AS PER YKELENSTAM’S RESEARCH
Skin rash, spots, redness, hives
Fushing & severe sweating
Joint or bone pain
Tachycardia (racing heartrate)
Eyes tearing/dry, eye pain
Persistent body/tissue pain
Episodes of low body temperature
Unexplained Vitamin B12 deficiency
Difficult menses (females)
Numbness & tingling in face and extremities
Skin feels on fire
Sudden drops in blood pressure
Unexplained weight loss
Swelling & inflammation
Odd reactions to insect stings
Decreased bone density
Shortness of breath
Temperature (hot/cold) sensitivity
Difficulty with foods & drinks
Anaphylactoid reactions & anaphylaxis
Gastrointestinal pain & bloating
Unexplained medication reactions
Enlarged lymph nodes
Unexplained bruising & bleeding
Intermittent tinnitus or hearing problems
Skin lesions or sores (mastocytosis)
– (Ykelenstam, 2017C)
If you’re interested, you can read the long and varied list of histamine intolerance symptoms Yasmina struggled with here.
I’ve experienced many of these disparate-seeming symptoms myself over the last many decades and, until recently, never encountered a doctor who understood the underlying histamine problem that was causing them all.
In 2012, after I’d suffered for over four months with watery diarrhea, sinus congestion, intensely itchy bumps and a rash on my chest and midriff, and bouts of exhaustion after meals, and had by chance discovered that Dramamine (an antihistamine and anticholinergic) temporarily stopped all those symptoms, I began to understand that I was having a histamine crisis.
It should be noted that I’d also tangled with a nasty Clostridium difficile infection two years earlier.
I asked my GI doc to do a colonoscopy with biopsies to look for an overgrowth of mast cells. The colonoscopy found my colon to be in great shape visually but the biopsies found a problem at the microscopic level: not the overgrowth of mast cells I’d expected but an inflammatory condition called lymphocytic colitis up near the junction with my small intestine. This condition is characterized by an increased number of lymphocytes in the colonic epithelium.
He said the condition isn’t dangerous and can be controlled with OTC drugs like Imodium and dietary changes. Imodium was no help and I changed to what I thought were better dietary choices (he’d offered no information on what these might be) yet my symptoms persisted. So I let him put me on a steroid called Budesonide (generic Entocort) that helps with the symptoms of IBS and Crohn’s Disease. This drug did stop the cycle for a few years, but it has returned twice since then. Had my doc been more informed about histamine intolerance and diet, he could have prevented a lot of misery.
And now, from the plentiful, well-researched information on Yasmina Ykelenstam’s site, I finally understand that it’s been untreated histamine intolerance underlying all the various symptoms I’ve had in my adult life.
I will say about this GI doc that he’s a lovely human being and is willing to learn. I’d brought quite a few articles on probiotics and the gut microbiome to our initial appointment in case he wasn’t familiar with this fairly new information. He wasn’t. He glanced through the stack and said the magic words that’s kept me going back to him: “There won’t be time for me to read these during your appointment. Would you mind if I keep them and read them over the weekend?”
And when I saw him a few months later, he was telling me about the importance of probiotics in the gut microbiome. And I had enough sense not to mention that I’d given him that information.
You can read more about mast cells in two earlier posts: The Role of Mast Cells and My Own Struggle with Mast Cells Gone Wild.
See my article Successful holistic treatment of Clostridium difficile gut infection: case study published in the Oriental Medicine Journal for information about how I vanquished my C. difficile infection without resorting to antibiotics, which had degraded my gut microbiome in the first place.
YASMINA’S JOURNEY TOWARD HEALTH
When Ykelenstam was finally diagnosed with histamine intolerance (HIT) by a doctor in London in 2010, she “wholeheartedly embraced the traditional hardcore elimination approach, low histamine diet and even more elimination of all foods that bothered me (fructose, salicylates, histamines oh my!)”. Trying to exist on only the five foods that didn’t trigger a huge histamine response in her body, her 5’10” body became a skeletally thin, weighing only 114 lbs. She felt “devoid of all joy in life, quietly nursing a hatred towards my body and all foods I was no longer able to eat.” And, to make matters worse, even on this dietary protocol she continued to experience debilitating histamine reactions.
“Realising something was horribly amiss, I set out to cram in as much histamine, mast cell, inflammation, nutrition, and biology information as I possibly could into the precious few hours not spent working my day job, blogging and cooking. And it paid off. Because I finally realised that what I had been doing to my body in these last few years was pretty much setting me up for a lifetime of misery.
“I had a hunch that whatever happened to break down my body years ago was now in the past, but that I was still somehow in a horrible cycle of inflammation, lack of nutrition, and stress, and it was all slowly killing me.
“Well, maybe not so slowly…I still felt that my anaphylactic episodes warranted further investigation, and in March 2013 my condition was clarified as Mast Cell Activation Syndrome by Dr Matito (under Dr Luis Escribano) in Toledo, Spain.
“Immediately prescribed mast cell stabilising meds and antihistamines, I decided not to go down that route again. I had after all only recently managed to kick all meds to the curb: antihistamines, anti-inflammatories, benzodiazepines, antidepressants, sleeping pills, mood stabilisers, diuretics, pain killers, antibiotics, antibacterials, and quite a few more. So I put my newly hard-won nutritional/histamine/mast cell research to work, embracing the fridge and fields as my medicine cabinet instead (along with a heaping dose of positivity, meditation, and yoga).” (Ykelenstam, 2017B) BEFORE
Ykelenstam at 190 lbs, after 6 years of daily anxiolytics, sleeping pills, antihistamines (H1 & H2), antidepressants, mood stabilisers, decongestants, steroid nasal sprays, eye drops, antibiotics, and diuretics – before addressing her histamine intolerance.
At about 130lbs. Getting adequate nutrition to minimize her histamine intolerance. Taking no pharmaceuticals. Using quercetin for emergencies.
HISTAMINE & EMOTIONAL STRESS
Factors that influence histamine intolerance include intestinal health, genetics, medication, diet, environment – and most importantly, our level of emotional distress. Emotional stress causes mast cells to release a number of molecules that create inflammation in the body. Histamine is one of those molecules.
Keeping oneself at a high level of emotional stress forces your immune system into a constant state of high alert, making it overly reactive. “The more relaxed we feel, the more histamine it will take to overwhelm the enzyme system responsible for its metabolism, and which consequently results in symptom formation.” (Tsafrir, 2013)
Creating calmness in your body/mind – at the cellular level – will go a long way toward reducing histamine tolerance (along with anything else that ails you). Practice whatever works for you – calming yoga, meditation, pranayama (breathwork), gardening, meditative cooking, needlepoint, dancing …..
INFO FROM DR AMY MYERS ON HISTAMINE INTOLERANCE
To learn more about histamine intolerance, I recommend looking at respected Functional Medicine doc Amy Myers’ article Everything You Need To Know About Histamine Intolerance.
Among the useful information here, you’ll find the two blood tests she uses to see if histamine intolerance is a problem for her patients. (Myers, 2017)
HELP FOR RECOVERING FROM HISTAMINE-RELATED INFLAMMATION
In her digital e-book The Anti-Cookbook: Antihistamine & Anti-Inflammatory Recipe for Health (Gluten & Dairy Free), Yasmina says: “My message is clear, my mission simple. To share how I “re-covered” from the worst symptoms of a histamine-related inflammatory condition, in the hope that others may benefit.” (Ykelenstam, 2013)
You can order this and more e-books in her histamine intolerance series and some other useful products in Yasmina’s online Healing Histamine Shop.
I for one am grateful to Ykelenstam for combining her intense desire to figure out how to heal her body with her considerable journalistic skills and sharing the results with anyone who cares to benefit from her experiences.
Perhaps you too will recognize yourself in her story and find the help you need to get yourself on the path for healing.
Here’s a FOOD DIARY you can download from Histamine Intolerance Awareness in the UK. If you think you may be histamine intolerant and want to track your reactions to the foods you’re eating, this is a good low tech way to record what you’re consuming, if and when you react to it, the nature of your reactions and their severity. Filling out the diary for a while will let you figure out what you can and can’t safely eat. (Histamine Intolerance Awareness, undated)
FOOD INTOLERANCES APP
If you prefer a higher-tech way to keep your food diary, this new version of the Food Intolerances app may be just the ticket. Version 4.0 (released on 8/26/2017) has been completely redesigned to include keeping track of histamine intolerance on both iPhone & iPad. The app costs $4.99.
Description of the newly revised app (from iTunes, 2017):
The app Food Intolerances is a tool to help everyone who has to stick to a restricted diet because of food intolerances or allergies. Typical application cases are: histamine intolerance, mastocytosis, fructose malabsorption, sorbitol intolerance, aspirin intolerance, gluten sensitivity, lactose intolerance or a diet low in FODMAPs.
The app contains more than 900 foods that are commented and rated in view of the following subjects:
– Carbohydrate malabsorptions • Fructose • Lactose • Sorbitol and other sugar alcohols • Oligosaccharides (e.g. fructans and galactans) • FODMAPs (total) • Sucrose
– Histamine intolerance • Histamine content • Tyramine content • Histamine liberators and DAO inhibitors • Problematic medicines • Food additives
– Salicylate intolerance • Salicylate content • Problematic food additives
– Other intolerances and allergies Filters for gluten, wheat, soy, yeast, sulfites, dairy, egg, fish, meat, pork, beef and honey
– More features • Detailed info texts • Flexibly adjustable rating system • Filter function • Sorting function • Possibility to write notes and manually adjust the rating • Adjustable portion size • Shopping list • Direct link to Wikipedia articles • No internet connection required
– Nutrition facts (in-app purchase) • General nutrition facts (e.g. energy, protein, salt, omega-3, …) • Minerals and micronutrients (e.g. iron, zinc, calcium, …) • Vitamins A to K • Recommended daily intake • Glycemic index and glycemic load • Sort foods by nutrition values (works in combination with the filter function)
* This app doesn’t rate brand specific products, but foods and products categories in general. It offers you all the information you need to deal with your intolerance and avoid common mistakes. Screenshots
ADDRESSING UNDERLYING CAUSES INSTEAD OF TRYING TO FIX SYMPTOMS
I’m well aware that educating yourself about the definitions of ‘health’ and ‘illness’ and protecting your future health requires commitment and fortitude. Altering your stance toward the advisability of taking drugs to suppress the symptoms of what’s making you sick rather than fixing their underlying cause and engaging in trial and error improvements to your diet is a process not for the faint of heart.
You can do it if you think you can and are patient with yourself during the process. The rewards are enormous.
Axe, J. (2017). Does Histamine Intolerance Cause Allergies, Headaches & Bloating? See: https://draxe.com/histamine-intolerance/
Hardin, J.R. (2011). Successful holistic treatment of Clostridium difficile gut infection: case study. Oriental Medicine Journal, 19:4, 24-37. See: http://peggyfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/C.-difficile-OMJ-article-lo-res.pdf
Hardin, J.R. (12/15/2013). The Role of Mast Cells. AllergiesAndYourGut.com. See: https://www.allergiesandyourgut.com/post/gut-symbiosis-versus-dysbiosis
Hardin, J.R. 12/15/2013). My Own Struggle with Mast Cells Gone Wild. AllergiesAndYourGut.com. See: https://www.allergiesandyourgut.com/post/my-own-struggle-with-mast-cells-gone-wild
Histamine Intolerance Awareness. (undated). The Food Diary. See: http://www.histamineintolerance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/food-diary.pdf
iTunes. (8/26/2017). Food Intolerances app – by Baliza GmbH. See: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/food-intolerances/id419098758?mt=8
Myers, A. (2017). Everything You Need To Know About Histamine Intolerance. See: https://www.amymyersmd.com/2016/02/everything-you-need-to-know-about-histamine-intolerance/
Tsafrir, J. (2013). Histamine Intolerance and Emotional Stress. See: http://www.judytsafrirmd.com/histamine-intolerance-and-emotional-stress/
Ykelenstam, Y. (2013). The Anti-Cookbook: Antihistamine & Anti-Inflammatory Recipe for Health (Gluten & Dairy Free). Digital e-book. See: https://healinghistamine.com/shop/
Ykelenstam, Y. (2017). Healing Histamine. See: https://healinghistamine.com
Ykelenstam, Y. (2017A). Healing Histamine: About Me. See: https://healinghistamine.com/about-me/
Ykelenstam, Y. (2017B). Healing Histamine: My Story of Transformation. See: https://healinghistamine.com/about-me/my-story-of-transformation/
Ykelenstam, Y. (2017C). Healing Histamine: Histamine Intolerance Symptoms. See: https://healinghistamine.com/histamine-intolerance-symptoms/ © Copyright 2017. Joan Rothchild Hardin. All Rights Reserved.
DISCLAIMER: Nothing on this site or blog is intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Comments submitted prior to 8/25/2021
Another very informative and valuable post, Joan! Despite having had many of the symptoms mentioned, apparently in my case histamine intolerance wasn’t the cause. I have none of those anymore other than some mild neuropathy from pinched nerves in the lumbar spine and knees, and very rare acid reflux. The only foods I avoid, as you know, are meats, fish and poultry. About a year ago I added eggs (once a week or less) and cheese several times a week, with no ill effects. In fact, about 9 months later when hospitalized for popcorn-induced
diverticulitis (then other taboo henceforth!), a team of new specialists discontinued all my meds for migraines, asthma and allergies (3 different antihistamine meds and steroid inhalers) and fibromyalgia. I don’t know how this fits into your post, but reading it really reasured me that I am well again!
In reply to Sunny
Excellent, Sunny! I’m so glad you’re well at last.