Amanda Geary, the founder of the Food and Mood Project, has been investigating the role of the naturally occurring neurotransmitter, histamine, in food allergy, food intolerance and mood control.
Dr Janice Joneja, a world expert on histamine intolerance, has created an easy-to-read guide to help you understand whether you might be histamine intolerant, and, if so, what you can do about it.
Histamine-containing foods can contribute to high histamine levels in the body. For histamine-sensitive people, this can be a problem. Recent research suggests that high levels of this essential neurotransmitter are associated with anxiety or panic attacks. Other research has shown that schizophrenia symptoms can arise from a histamine imbalance influencing brain functioning. Emotional and mental health symptoms due to abnormally high histamine could be helped simply by reducing or avoiding the high risk, high histamine, foods, and choosing low histamine foods instead.
Springtime can be hellish for hay fever suffers as the body's immune defenses go into overdrive and produce the irritating and disabling symptoms of red, itchy, watering eyes, runny nose and sneezing. The natural chemical histamine is largely responsible for this familiar but unwanted response to high levels of pollens in the atmosphere. Therefore it is often antihistamine medication and nasal sprays that are used to gain some relief.
Histamine Restricted Diet
Research published in the Journal of Nutritional & Environmental Medicine (Vol 11, no.4, 249-262) into the effects of a histamine restricted diet on allergy symptoms of patients at Vancouver Hospital, Canada, showed some unexpected but interesting ‘'food/mood' findings.
Unlike an allergic reaction to a food, a food intolerance reaction depends on the individual's sensitivity threshold as well as how much of a problem food they consume. So, this study looked into the effects of a 4-week low-histamine diet that avoided histamine-containing foods and histamine-releasing foods (see box, bottom) in order to reduce a total load of histamine in the body.
The research was primarily aimed at studying the effect on allergic symptoms such as urticaria (hives), angioedema (swelling) and pruritus (itching). 61% of the people in the study reported a significant improvement to these symptoms but, according to Dr Janice Joneja of the Allergy Nutrition Clinic at Vancouver Hospital, there was also another surprising report of considerable improvement.
This unexpected finding was in the benefits experienced by all three of the 44 people taking part in the study who had also suffered ‘panic-like attacks’ as well as their physical, symptoms. Prior to undertaking the diet, they had suffered feelings of overwhelming anxiety, increased heart rate, clammy skin, feelings of 'I have to get out of here' or, in one case, even fainting.
After 4 weeks on the special diet, all three of these research participants remained completely free from such symptoms as long as they followed the histamine-restricted diet. And these benefits were experienced despite the fact that they had suffered symptoms frequently (in one case daily) prior to starting the diet.
One possible explanation for the effect of histamine on feelings of anxiety is thought to be due to the vasodilation, or widening of blood vessels, that is associated with high histamine levels. This would lead to hypotension, or low blood pressure, which the body attempts to compensate for by increasing the heart rate, leading to feelings of anxiety.
Dr Joneja advises ‘until a more definitive randomised, controlled trial can be completed, others who suffer similarly may achieve at least some degree of relief by following the histamine-restricted diet. The foods eliminated from this type of diet can be easily replaced with others of equivalent nutrient value and … because the response will be observed quite quickly, a period of 4 weeks on the diet will be sufficient for an individual to determine whether dietary manipulation will help in the management of their symptoms’.
The small number of people involved means that these findings are not considered statistically significant. However, for the three people concerned, there has been a 100% improvement in how they feel, apparently entirely due to a change in what they were eating.
Histamine and Schizophrenia
Dr Carl Pfieffer of the Princeton Bio Center in New Jersey found that having treated over 20,000 schizophrenic patients using nutrient-based orthomolecular medicine, an imbalance of histamine could explain the symptoms of almost two-thirds of patients who had been diagnosed as schizophrenic.
Pfieffer coined the term ‘histapenia’ to describe the low histamine condition and the term ‘histadelia’ to describe elevated levels of histamine.
People with high levels of histamine, or histadelics, tend to suffer obsessions, compulsions, phobias, drug, alcohol or sugar addictions, extreme depression and can be compulsively suicidal. Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland are examples of likely high histamine types who died a suicidal death.
Once a diagnosis of histamine excess or deficiency has been made using a blood test, histadelia and histapenia can be modified using appropriate nutritional supplements.
Some Signs of High Histamine
The more of the following that applies to you the more likely you are to be a high-histamine type.
High histamine types tend to:
• Cry easily
• Hear their pulse in their head on the pillow at night
• Itch and scratch a lot
• Have seasonal allergies
• Have a low pain threshold with regular headaches and other aches and pains
• Produce excessive mucous
• Feel nauseous easily
• Have a high sex drive and easy orgasm
• Experience inner tension or ‘driven’ feelings
• Have episodes of ‘blank mind’
• Suffer from depression and sometimes suicidal thoughts
• Have abnormal fears, compulsions, rituals
• Be a light sleeper or experience severe insomnia
• Appear to tolerate a lot of alcohol or drugs
• Have a fast metabolism with high body temperature.
• Be of lean build with little body hair
• Have a large nose or ears, long fingers and toes (and often a longer second toe than the first)
• Have excellent teeth
Histamine fact file
• is a neurotransmitter that has an important role in the immune response.
• is concentrated in ‘mast’ cells and when released causes itching, increases the permeability of blood vessels and produces swelling and skin reddening.
• plays a regulatory role in muscle contraction and gastric acid secretion.
• increases vasodilation causing symptoms such as hypotension (decreased blood pressure) and tachycardia (increased pulse rate) and causes constriction of the bronchi in the lungs.
• is made from histidine an amino acid or protein fragment.
• intolerance is due to an excess of histamine, which results in a variety of symptoms.
How to Reduce your Histamine Load
1. Histamine is present in most foods so it’s more a question of reducing your total load of histamine containing foods rather than avoiding it completely. Use the table provided to see if you are eating a lot of high histamine foods that could be eaten less often or avoided altogether.
2. Avoid eating overripe fruits and vegetables as histamine levels rise as these foods ripen.
3. Throw out the left-overs in the fridge and ensure your food is as fresh as possible, as histamine is formed from the bacterial action that takes place as food starts to rot.
4. Take steps, such as increasing water intake, to prevent constipation. Food can start to ferment in the gut and add to the histamine burden in the body.
5. Cut down on additives that, although they don’t contain histamine themselves, can contribute to histamine being released in the body and lead to a ‘pseudo-allergic reaction’.
6. Avoid fermented foods such as cheese, wine, vinegar, fermented sausages, soy sauce and sauerkraut as these naturally contain high levels of histamine.
Vitamin C is a natural antihistamine so supplementing 2000mg per day can be beneficial. Folic acid (particularly in amounts over 200mcg per day) increases histamine levels and therefore should be avoided in those people whose histamine levels are already high.
High Histamine Foods
How to use this table
When considering restricting your diet it is essential to make sure that you are still eating a variety of foods with a minimum of five portions of fruits & vegetables per day. It is also important to remember that the histamine level of foods varies considerably, as does individual sensitivity. The information in this table is based on the histamine-restricted diet used at the Allergy Nutrition Clinic, Vancouver Hospital, Canada.
MEAT, POULTRY, FISH
All fish and shellfish (unless caught, gutted and cooked within 30 minutes)
A small amount in baked products may be tolerated
PROCESSED, SMOKED and FERMENTED MEATS
Such as luncheon meat, salami, pepperoni, smoked ham, cured bacon
All types of cheese, yoghurt, buttermilk and kefir.
Apricots, bananas, cranberries, cherries, citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit), currants, dates, loganberries, pineapple, prunes, raisins, raspberries, strawberries
Aubergine (eggplant), avocados, olives, pumpkin, red beans, soy and soy products, spinach, tomatoes, tomato sauces, ketchup, seasonings, anise, cinnamon, cloves, chilli powder, curry powder, nutmeg, pickles, relishes, sauerkraut and other foods containing vinegar
Tea (black/ green), chocolate, cocoa, cola, alcoholic and ‘de-alcoholised’ drinks
Colourings such as tartrazine (E102), preservatives such as sulphites, benzoates, BHA and BHT.
First published in 2003
Ed. Dr Janice Joneja is an authority on histamine; you will find her articles here on this site. She says that, where allergy is ruled out, DAO supplements can be very helpful in dealing with histamine excess. You can buy DAO supplements here in the UK and here in the US.