Around 1% of the Swiss population suffer from a histamine intolerance. When those affected eat food that is high in histamine, they may experience reddened skin, digestive problems or headaches. Find out more about its cause, diagnosis and treatment.
Histamine is a protein that is a biogenic amine – biological active substances that carry out a range of important tasks in the body. For example, it acts as a neurotransmitter during an allergic reaction and controls the sleep-wake cycle, production of stomach acid and blood pressure.
We still can’t explain what exactly causes a histamine intolerance. The assumption is that there is an imbalance between histamine and the impaired activity of the enzymes diamine oxidase (DAO) and histamine N-methyltransferase (HNMT), which break down histamines.
Normally, the enzyme diamine oxidase (DAO) breaks down surplus histamine in the body. If this enzyme isn’t working properly, or if there is too little of it, a histamine intolerance can occur. In this case, just a small amount of histamine will cause an allergic reaction.
The signs of a histamine intolerance primarily occur during and after eating. Possible symptoms include:
Coming into contact with other allergens at the same time, such as pollen, can make the symptoms worse.
Would you like to find out more about possible symptoms of a histamine intolerance? Or do you need more information about a low-histamine diet? Our health consultation advisors are happy to help you.
There are no specific tests for diagnosing a histamine intolerance. Blood and urine tests are not conclusive enough.
First, the doctor rules out any other food allergy or intolerance, such as lactose intolerance, coeliac disease or fructose malabsorption. A food and symptom diary can help with making the diagnosis. In the next step, those affected try a low-histamine diet, under the guidance of a medical professional. If the symptoms get better during this period, this points to a histamine intolerance.
It’s important to find out which foods actually lead to problems. Those affected start gradually re-adding specific foods into their diet. This way, they can find out which foods to avoid in the future.
Shortly before eating, it can also help to take the enzyme diamine oxidase in the form of tablets. Your body can use this to break down more histamine. For acute complaints, antihistamines can help alleviate symptoms.
Please note: treatment should always be carried out in consultation with a doctor.
There are various factors that influence the level of histamine in food. Generally speaking, food that is brewed, fermented or ripens contains more histamine. These foods often contain alcohol, vinegar, yeast and bacteria. Here are a few examples of foods with especially high levels of histamine:
Food that is kept warm or warmed up again often contains a high level of histamine.
It’s not just food containing a high level of histamine that can cause problems; foods which release histamine in the body also cause issues. These include citrus fruits, strawberries and chocolate. Because the enzyme diamine oxidase is supposed to break down other biogenic amines as well as histamine, pineapples, bananas, raspberries, oranges, kiwi, peanuts and other legumes can also lead to complaints. This is because they all contain different biogenic amines.
Medication can also release histamine or slow down the breakdown of histamine. This includes painkillers, muscle relaxants, antibiotics and medication for high blood pressure. Once you stop taking the medication, the symptoms will often disappear.
Please note: you should only stop medication after consultation with a doctor.
Above all, fresh and unprocessed foods contain little histamine. Food that can be well tolerated includes:
Julia Pieh (doctorate in pharmacy and toxicology, pharmacist, naturopath) works as a health consultation advisor and quality coach at Helsana. She is committed to providing health advice to our clients. Ms Pieh provided the editorial team with advice and input for this article.
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