Histamine, Anxiety, Inflammation and FOOD!
Ahh, June- who doesn’t love those first few weeks of summertime when the air is warm, the flowers are in bloom, and delicate clouds of pollen dance on the 20mph Colorado winds… That’s right, it’s allergy season. Time to break out the antihistamine and try not to sneeze yourself silly! But what is histamine exactly, and does it do more than simply causing us annual misery?
Histamine is an organic chemical produced by the immune system to help rid the body of allergens. The watery eyes, sneezing, and itchiness you may experience are all an attempt by the body to expel irritants and stabilize your system! Maybe this is obvious, but the body’s relationship to histamine is actually far more complex than seasonal discomfort. Histamine isn’t only produced by the immune system. The foods you eat also contain histamine at varying levels- and not just the packaged, processed, glutinous foods that one might expect… oh no, all of the foods you eat contain histamine. This means that even foods that do not produce an allergic reaction can increase the level of histamine the body has to metabolize in order to maintain balance, which can be a real challenge when it is working overtime to deal with seasonal allergies. While you may not have true food allergies, excess histamine could mean the foods you are eating are worsening your symptoms without you even being aware of it! Or worse… contributing to problems you may not even recognize are related at all.
How do you know if you’re dealing with an excess of histamine? The answer once again is… complex. While the result may be stereotypical allergic reactions, other reactions may be less noticeable or intuitive. For one, an increase in overall inflammation has been shown to be associated with an abundance of histamine within the system, as well as poor histamine metabolization. This may be because of the involvement of white blood cells (called mast cells) in histamine production that subsequently boost blood flow to the affected areas of the body. High histamine levels in the digestive system can also trigger mast cells to initiate an immune response, causing further inflammation… and by now, it’s likely we have all heard how tricky gut inflammation can be to tackle. Individuals with heightened baseline levels of inflammation in the body are also at a higher risk for disordered immune responses, which includes histamine/mast cell reactivity. If it sounds like a merry-go-round of cause and effect, that’s because IT IS! Inflammation-induced histamine has also been shown to decrease serotonin production! Similarly, and perhaps more alarmingly, certain studies have shown a significant relationship between histamine levels and anxiety symptoms. While histamine in the gut and blood are sure to cause all sorts of issues that can lead to feelings of anxiousness and irritation, high levels of brain histamine (that’s right, brain histamine) have been shown to correlate with anxiety behaviors. This is thought to be so significant that prescribing specific antihistamines for anxiety disorders has shown to be as effective as other leading treatment options in some clinical trials. However, it isn’t so simple that high histamine levels cause anxiety. In fact, in some cases anxiety has been shown to slow the body’s ability to process histamine, increasing the body’s sensitivity to environmental allergens and high histamine foods. That’s right, we are back on the cause and effect merry-go-round.
So what’s to blame: inflammation, histamine, stress and anxiety, FOOD?! The answer is, we may never know. However, knowing that it’s all connected could be enough to inform our choices in how and when we eat what we eat! While there are certain foods that increase histamine levels dramatically (like fermented foods and beverages, cured meats, mold prone nuts, legumes and fruits), there are also foods that can help metabolize histamine, which may in turn tip the scales towards balance- and in an equation where every effect is also a cause, one small change could promote significant relief in other areas! Find yourself feeling a heightened sense of anxiety around springtime? Perhaps it’s time to assess what you consume when environmental allergens are more prevalent! Dealing with inflammation in the gut, joints, or head? Maybe it’s a good time to boost your intake of histamine metabolizing foods! The most we can do is to learn about our unique systems to do what we can to support them!
*Author note – I am not a biologist, functional doctor, or dietitian. This article was written by someone who has learned to successfully manage histamine intolerance for over a decade and has learned some fascinating tid-bits along the way. If you’re like me and the pollen is driving you NUTS, try this gentle herbal tea blend that has been saving my sanity for years:
Herbal antihistamine tea
1tsp dried Tulsi Basil : Adaptogenic, prevents mast cell degranulation (a fancy way of saying it decreases the amount of histamine mast cells produce to deal with allergens)
1tsp dried Nettle : Decreases inflammatory events and histamine production
16 oz hot (but not boiling!) water
Honey to taste : If your seasonal allergies are REALLY BAD I do not recommend adding honey. This is surprisingly controversial, as local honey can technically help the system become more resilient to environmental allergens. However, if histamine levels within the body are already high, you are more likely to simply react to the glorious, sticky pollen soup than you are to benefit from it.
Combine all ingredients and let steep for 10-15 minutes, depending on your flavor preferences.