A guide to high-histamine foods
Think histamine is just about allergy? Think again. Registered nutritionist, Kerry Torrens explores what histamine is and how the food we eat can affect our histamine levels
What is histamine?
Most of us think allergy when we talk about histamine, but this immune chemical has lots of other important functions in the body too, including communicating with the brain and supporting digestive function.
Histamine isn’t only made in the body, we also consume it in our diet, with fermented, aged and processed foods being particularly rich.
What is histamine ‘load’?
Histamine is made in the body from an amino acid and stored in special immune cells called mast cells and basophils; certain bacteria in the gut may also produce histamine. Our histamine ‘load’ refers to the amount of histamine in the body, it may become a problem if we over-produce histamine and fail to adequately manage it by breaking it down.
Outside of the body the main source of histamine is the food we eat, where it may be present in variable amounts.
Even if a food is not high in histamine itself, it may trigger our mast cells to release histamine. These histamine liberators include kiwi fruit, strawberries, bananas, papaya, citrus fruits and pineapple as well as food additives like carrageenan; certain foods are known to block the activity of the enzyme that is involved in breaking down histamine – an enzyme called diamine oxidase (DAO). Caffeinated as well as energy drinks and alcohol are examples of these.
All that said, there are foods that are really useful because they act as natural anti-histamines, inhibiting the action of histamine – these include onions, apples and blueberries.
Read more about low-histamine foods.
How does my body control levels of histamine?
Histamine, when adequately managed, has a relatively short life in the body, controlled by the DAO enzyme. However, some people are genetically disposed to a deficiency in this enzyme, others may be prescribed medication that inhibits its action or have poor gut health which impacts how well it works – all of which may increase your histamine load and lead to a potential intolerance.
It’s worth remembering that your histamine load is also influenced by your environment and even the time of day, with histamine levels peaking at night, when mast cells are most active.
Does cooking or freezing food reduce histamine levels?
In food, histamine-producing bacteria are capable of growing and producing histamine over a wide range of temperatures – this is why storing leftovers can be problematic. It’s not just bacteria though, enzymes such as those found in fish can produce histamine even if the relevant bacteria have been inactivated. These enzymes can remain stable when frozen and will start to work again once the food is thawed. Cooking can inactivate both the histamine-producing bacteria and the enzyme, but once histamine has been produced in the food it can’t be eliminated or reduced.
What is the role of digestion in histamine intolerance?
Our gut and digestive function play an important role in managing histamine levels, this is because the main barrier to external histamine is the DAO enzyme in our intestines – when working well, this enzyme breaks down histamine and stops it entering the circulation.
Poor gut health and conditions like inflammatory bowel disease reduce how well the DAO enzyme is able to do its job. Add to this that an imbalance in gut bacteria, often referred to as dysbiosis, also contributes to histamine levels.
If you’re experiencing food sensitivities and/or have digestive issues which you suspect may be aggravating your ability to manage histamine, refer to a registered dietician or nutritionist for advice and guidance.
Which foods are high in histamine?
Histamine levels in food, even the same type of food, can be hard to quantify. Generally speaking, fermented, aged and processed foods will contain more than their fresh, unprocessed equivalents.
Protein foods, like fish and meat, especially those that are stored for periods of time, are also likely to be higher in histamine. Even when frozen, these foods, once thawed, will start to increase their histamine levels.
Furthermore, some histamine-producing bacteria are resistant to salt, which means they continue to produce histamine even when a food is salted, smoked or dried. Other bacteria are anaerobic, so vacuum packing doesn’t inhibit them and higher levels of histamine are typically seen in leftover and out-of-date food.
The following is a list of foods which are typically high in histamine – this is not an exhaustive list and your response to these foods will depend on your individual tolerance level and may vary over time.
- Meat – smoked, cured and aged meats including bacon, sausage and salami as well as pre-packed minced meat. Game and wild meats are likely to have higher levels of histamine than farmed meat, eaten fresh.
- Fish – mackerel, tuna, sardines, anchovies, smoked and canned fish, seafood and shellfish as well as any whole fish that has not been gutted within 30 minutes.
- Dairy – cow’s milk and milk products, especially those made using milk containing A1 casein; fermented dairy including yogurt and kefir, sour cream, buttermilk, hard and semi-hard cheese, as well as aged cheese such as parmesan, mature gouda and cheddar. Sheep and goat’s milk may be better tolerated.
- Grains – baked foods and cereals including those made with yeast or that are fermented, like sourdough, as well as products with barley malt.
- Fruit – aubergine, avocado, banana, tomatoes and all dried fruits
- Vegetables – spinach, mushrooms, fermented vegetables including kimchi and sauerkraut as well as canned vegetables
- Legumes – lentils, chickpeas, peanuts and beans as well as fermented soya products
- Nuts – such as walnuts
- Condiments – miso, vinegar, soy sauce and tamari, fish sauce, pickles and olives as well as sea vegetables such as kelp and kombu
- Chocolate and cocoa powder
- Food additives – including yeast and malt extracts as well as some synthetic food colourings
- Beverages – alcohol including champagne, wine and beer; some juices including tomato and orange juice
For more information check out this extensive food list.
Which other products influence histamine levels?
It’s not just food that can add to your histamine load, chemicals and additives found in cosmetic, beauty and household products like deodorants, perfumes, shampoos, sunscreen and make-up may also be contributors. Here are some examples:
- Chlorine used in swimming pools and hot tubs, as well as some dental care products, including toothpaste
- Additives like toluene, formaldehyde and formalin commonly used in nail polish
- Antibacterial agents like triclosan
- Synthetic fragrance
- Synthetic colours
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Have you tried a low-histamine diet? Have you found additives and chemicals in cosmetic and beauty products worsen your symptoms? Comment below and let us know.
This article was reviewed on 17 June 2022 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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