Histamine is a ‘nitrogen compound’ that plays an important role in the immune response. When we have a foreign pathogen in our bloodstream – some form of toxin for instance – the body then produces histamine (in the basophils and mast cells in the nearby tissue) in order to combat the toxins and the infected tissues.
The way this works is by increasing the capillaries (small blood vessels) permeability for white blood cells and certain proteins that are crucial for the immune system allowing them then to attack the source of the problem. This then results in the symptoms that we associate with the immune response – such as swelling which is caused by the blood fluids (such as leukocytes) rushing into those nearby blood vessels.
Histamine also has the effect of causing the contraction of muscle tissue. This can mean that the muscles surrounding the airways constrict and this results in potential difficulties breathing. Other effects are itching and increased production of mucus.
Histamine is effective in treating infections from foreign pathogens and is an important part of the immune response. However at the same time it is also histamine sometimes that actually causes the problem, as the swelling and muscle contractions can be dangerous. Meanwhile in some cases histamine is produced by the body mistakenly and in these scenarios it actually does more harm than good. Take for instance food allergies – here the body mistakes the food being consumed for a pathogen (for reasons that aren’t currently understood) and this then results in the body producing more histamine as it would with a toxin. Here the allergic response is not conducive to health and can in fact be life threatening.
The previously described effect is a food allergy and this describes a histamine reaction to a generally innocuous substance. A food intolerance for histamine however is different and is a result of a food containing histamine itself or causing the release of histamine. Basically in these cases the histamine is a reaction caused by the food on the body, and in an allergy it is a reaction caused by the immune system. Thus, foods that are high in histamine will not be defined as an allergic reaction as the allergic response is a result of a mistake by the immune system, which is not the case here. The symptoms of a food intolerance caused by histamine however will be very similar to those caused by an allergy, because the symptoms in both cases are caused by histamine.
The body can have an intolerance for many different ingredients. For instance lactose – and often this is to do with the substance affecting the digestion process. Histamine rich foods then are only one kind of food likely to cause food intolerances, but by identifying the foods eaten as well as the symptoms, it is possible to ascertain the whether histamine was the cause or whether another substance was at play.
Histamine Rich Foods
Avoiding histamine rich foods is an effective way to avoid food intolerances particularly where the symptoms are similar to those caused by allergies. Many different kinds of foods are high in histamines, for instance any foods that have been fermented. A short list of foods containing histamines include:
- Alcoholic drinks – particularly beer and wine
- Dried fruits (dates, prunes, figs etc)
- Processed meats such as sausages
- Sour cream
- Sour milk
- Soured breads
- Cheese (particularly Parmesan, blue cheese and other fermented cheeses)
- Smoked meats