If someone had told me three months ago that the weird constellation of symptoms I was experiencing was all connected and that to reign in my symptoms I would need to avoid eating leftovers, all fermented foods, and things like olives and pickles, I probably would have looked at that person and said, “Is this some kind of cruel joke?”
I bet you can guess where I’m going – it’s not a joke. It does feel a bit cruel, however.
The weird food intolerance I have developed is called histamine intolerance, HIT for short. Looking back at my symptoms I can see that this has been an issue for me for at least ten years.
While avoiding histamines in foods is not easy, I wish I had known about this years ago. I would have saved myself a lot of suffering. And that’s why I want to share this information with you – maybe by learning about histamine intolerance you’ll have one of those ah-ha moments like I did.
My Ah-Ha Moment
The funny thing is that I had actually heard about histamine intolerance before. Back when I was organizing food swaps in my hometown of Charlotte, NC, an acquaintance who often attended told me she had trouble with fermented foods because of precisely that reason.
I asked her what her symptoms were, how it manifested, what she did to manage it.
I did precisely none of those things.
Instead, I probably nodded and went back to proclaiming the merits of fermentation.
This year when I started to have gastrointestinal issues, I ran across the term again, but the description I read of it was so short that I had no idea if it could be an issue for me.
And then a couple of months ago, I checked out a book from the library on low-inflammation diets. I had come to the conclusion that my GI issues were connected to some other inflammation issues I was having and wanted to learn more about which foods were anti-inflammatory.
This particular cookbook turned out to be entirely focused on histamine intolerance and eating a low histamine diet. As I read the author’s story, and discovered the symptoms connected to this condition, a whole host of proverbial light bulbs went off in my head. Bingo.
My Histamine Intolerance Symptoms
By late summer I had a wide range of issues going on:
- Sleep disturbance
- Acid indigestion, reflux and /or ulcer
- Allergy symptoms
- Lung tightness
- Elevated heart rate
- Heart palpitations
- Eczema flare ups
- Inflammation on awakening
- Mild headaches right after eating
Here’s what was a bit weird. I would get strong acid indigestion after eating non-acidic things like cinnamon. One day I made myself a cup of herbal tea consisting of nothing but hot water and a cinnamon stick. I couldn’t finish my cinnamon tea, it was as if I was drinking lye.
I had a bout of (what felt like) bronchitis in the spring, and at that point I had already noticed that I felt noticeably worse after eating. But only sometimes.
By the time the summer arrived, my nose would frequently start running in the middle of eating meals – meals which were not hot or spicy.
And the worst was that my heart rate was going crazy after I’d eat. Writing this, I can say that my heart rate is comfortable, I don’t notice it at all. During the worst of my symptoms, my heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest pretty much all the time, and the feeling worsened after meals.
You can tell where I’m going with all this, right? All of these symptoms were caused or worsened by what I was eating.
My fresh salads with canned anchovies, jarred olives or pickles, and leftover steamed veggies were triggering me. The leftover, slow-cooked chicken was triggering me. Nearly all the food I was eating was triggering me.
What Causes Reactions to Histamine?
Histamine is not something we human beings are going to want to put into the “bad” category. It’s something we need in our bodies, and some people actually have issues with low histamine.
This is my understanding so far. As well as getting histamines from our food, our bodies produce histamine on their own. That histamine gets wiped away by an enzyme called DAO, keeping things in balance.
If your body isn’t producing enough DAO, the histamine builds up and starts to cause symptoms. Because histamine is produced by mast cells, which are everywhere in our body, symptoms can be widespread and diverse.
Why Isn’t There Enough DAO?
There seem to be several different factors influencing your body’s ability to produce DAO – and guess what, if you’re (un)lucky you might have more than one!
Your genes can be responsible. There are SNPs (genetic variations) that can cause you to have weak DAO production.
In my case, I suspect my genes to be at least partially responsible. Late in her life, my grandmother developed food sensitivities to many of the same things causing me problems at the moment (cinnamon, citrus).
Gut permeability, aka, leaky gut can also be responsible as well as SIBO, or small intestine bacterial overgrowth. Mast Cell Activation Syndrome or Disorder (MCAS / MCAD) can also cause histamine intolerance.
My Other Symptoms Related to Histamine Intolerance
As I have learned more and more about this condition, I have been shocked, looking back through the past years of my life, seeing other symptoms jump out at me like red flags.
Chemical sensitivity is another common problem related to histamine intolerance. I have been chemically sensitive for as long as I can remember, always hating and avoiding detergent aisles in grocery stores. The long-lasting nature of my chemical sensitivities make me think that my histamine intolerance is at least in part, something I’ve had since birth.
After being a long time wine aficionado, several years ago I developed an aversion to alcohol, particularly red wine. Every time I took a sip, I would feel revolted. It made me feel very bad, very quickly, and not in a tipsy sort of way. This was different. Alcohol is high in histamines, red wine particularly so.
About a decade ago my menstrual cycle became intensely painful, so much so that I would do my best to plan my life around it, so that I could stay home and agonize in privacy. Painful periods are another symptom of HIT. Eating a low histamine diet has made my period no longer a thing of agony.
Three years ago I developed severe sleep issues and spent months with very disturbed sleep, sometimes going for a week at a time without sleeping at all. Sleep disturbances are yet another symptom.
A year and a half ago I developed ulcer like symptoms. Ulcer, reflux, and heartburn are all hallmarks of histamine intolerance as well.
Last year at this time I took a gluten free bread baking course. While I loved being able to bake with yeast again, introducing yeast into my diet sent my GI conditions into a spiral. Yeast is not tolerated by the histamine intolerant.
And there are many other symptoms related to histamine intolerance, including:
- Panic attacks
- Brain fog
What Can You Eat When You’re Histamine Intolerant?
Some foods are high in histamines themselves, others encourage your body to produce histamines and are called histamine liberators.
Generally those on the AVOID list include: aged cheeses, aged meats, slow-cooked meats, fish and seafood, fermented foods, pickled foods, alcohol, vinegar, tomatoes, eggplant, hot pepper, spinach, most spices, strawberries, citrus, dried fruit, yeast, nuts, wheat, buckwheat, and… leftovers.
If you think you may be histamine intolerant, you’ll want to avoid those foods. Fun, right? Yeah, I know. NOT fun.
Here’s what you can eat, in general: fresh fruits and vegetables, freshly prepared meat (as long as it was frozen immediately after slaughter and kept frozen until you cook it), most grains, and most herbs. Any leftovers need to be frozen asap and then thawed while heating them – don’t thaw them in the fridge first.
There is a lot of conflicting information out there on some of the fruits and vegetables. Some lists say sweet potatoes are ok, others say they’re not.
This list by SIGHI, the Swiss Interest Group Histamine Intolerance has a scale for each food, rating it on a scale of 0 for low to 3 for very high.
You have to use these lists as a starting point and then see what works for you, there seems to be a lot of variability in different people’s reactions to different foods.
Sources and Additional Reading
I’m by no means an expert on histamine intolerance, but I have been spending huge amounts of my free time reading, researching, and trying to understand it, and this post is a boiled down synthesis of my own understanding of this difficult condition.
If my experiences and symptoms sound familiar, I encourage you to consult with the following resources. I have found them helpful, and you may too.
Dirty Genes by Ben Lynch, ND
Beginner’s Guide to Histamine Intolerance by Janice Joneja
Is Food Making You Sick: The Strictly Low Histamine Diet by James L. Gibb
A Final Note
One final note for those who think they may be histamine intolerant. When I started this blog, I had no idea I was histamine intolerant. There are recipes here that are most certainly NOT friendly to the histamine intolerant – just letting you know.
And hey – sharing is caring! If you know someone else who you think might need this information, please pass along this article.