So the other day, I sat together with friends at lunch and they said they follow a low histamine diet. And I thought – interesting. I genuinely have not heard about this one (?!). Now, I do appreciate that it is January and January tends to bring heightened awareness and spamming with regards to fad diets and “quick fixes” to our not-needing-to-be-fixed-in-the-first-place bodies. So please allow me to be clear: There are times where our bodies need (or want) to follow different dietary requirements. Because we are going through illness/injury or some form of (auto)immune issue that needs management. So when I speak about “diet” in this sense it refers to dietary requirements, not to losing weight. You can also read more about why I don’t believe in diets here.
What is a Low Histamine Diet?
Coming back to the question that I asked myself originally when I heard my friend talk about. What is a Low Histamine Diet?
What is Histamine?
Histamine is a chemical that plays a role in several of our bodily functions, including digestion, the immune, and neurological systems. Our bodies make enough histamine themselves, but it is also present in certain foods. Histamine is produced by our white blood cells when our immune system is defending us against potential allergens. During this defense, our bodies can result in an allergic reaction from certain allergy triggers, such as mold, pollen, and some foods.
What happens if I have too much Histamine in my body?
Some people (about 1% of the world’s population) develop a defense response to histamine-rich foods. Usually, our bodies react with inflammation and swelling of blood vessels, which can lead to:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Or even headaches and diarrhea
There are also certain medical and autoimmune conditions that can increase a lowered tolerance to histamine. These are Crohn’s, gastrointestinal disorders, imbalance of the gut microbiome, extreme stress, or trauma.
As of today, there are no reliable tests that can prove whether someone should follow a low histamine diet (this is, unfortunately, very much still the case with a lot of dietary challenges people experience). In such cases, physicians usually recommend an elimination diet. With an elimination diet, you take out certain foods for at least four weeks and then slowly add them back in week by week in order to see which one(s) you may have a reaction to.
Foods to avoid on a Low Histamine Diet
Histamine in food is a bit difficult to quantify because it can vary from product to product. For example, with a piece of cheddar, the histamine level depends on how long it has been aged, its storage time, and whether any additives have been added to the product.
In principle though, foods that are fermented tend to have the highest amount of histamine levels, whereas foods that are unprocessed tend to have the lowest. Foods to avoid on a low histamine diet are:
- Fermented cheese products, e.g. cheese, yogurt, sour creme, kefir, and buttermilk
- Sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha
- Pickles and pickled vegetables
- Cured meats
- Beer, wine, and sparkling wines
- Fermented grains (e.g. sourdough)
- Fermented soy products, such as miso and tempeh
- Canned fish
- (Apple cider) vinegar
Low histamine levels and a low histamine diet are still relatively new areas of research. Whereas some people may experience relief, there is still a question around cross-contamination, where certain foods, even if they do not contain high levels of histamine, it can release histamine in the body. Scientists have not found out why this may be the case.
Pros and Cons of a Low Histamine Diet
One of the biggest disadvantages of a low histamine diet is that it can feel quite restrictive and may also mean that you are not getting all of the nutrients you necessarily should. Therefore, a low histamine diet should be used more as a diagnostic tool in order to understand which foods trigger you. Please consult your physician and do this protocol under the guidance of your healthcare specialist.
Low Histamine Diet – The Takeaway
There is currently limited research and information on the low histamine diet. However, that does not mean that it may not help and/or be the right approach for you. I was lactose intolerant long before it was something any doctor ever spoke about and consistently misdiagnosed me. If you are going on a low histamine diet, please do so together with your primary healthcare specialist and view it as a short-term protocol, rather than a lifelong dietary change.