Finding Compassion with Histamine Intolerance | Diet, Supplements, Mindset
I was traveling last week and had my first really big histamine reaction in months. My husband and I were out at a restaurant and the more I ate, the worse I felt. By dessert time I just needed to bag it and leave for the Airbnb. While on the road I’d been drinking a lot of kombucha, eating more than my share of smoked salmon, avocado and dark chocolate, and had ditched my meditation and exercise routine for a conference hall packed with 4,000 people. I felt the headache first came on while I was getting teary eyed watching a choir performance during the closing speeches of the event; histamine seems to love strong emotion. While the nausea and migraine sucked, the experience was a good reminder that I can’t just let my toolbox go while I’m on a trip.
Histamine symptoms started showing up for me in 2014, though I didn’t have a name for it at the time. The year leading up to my wedding was a complete disaster health-wise. I had brain fog, near constant nausea, diarrhea, cramps, vomiting, anxiety and crying jags, and one-sided migraine headaches after eating. Also, increased sex drive, which is a really awkward feeling while otherwise you're a total mess? Looking back, a lot of the events where I thought I had food poisoning were probably histamine related. I'd get sick after eating oysters, sushi, or going out to Mexican food. From my research I often see a link between histamine symptom onset and food poisoning, so maybe a little of both.
I’d been gluten free at that point for 3 years, still working in as much GF bread and pasta as I could. I get ataxia and lose my balance and coordination when I eat gluten. I’d recently done my first round of Whole30 with the goal of teaching myself how to eat paleo, and was overall starting to go more in that direction. I remember drinking a bottle of kombucha during that Whole30, getting an immediate migraine, and thinking I must be having some sort of detox reaction. I’ve worked in the restaurant and wine industry for my entire career, as a sommelier and in wine sales. Outside of Whole30 time, I was drinking regularly.
After our wedding I took the Cyrex gluten cross reactive foods test, which showed a positive for every grain on the list, the highest marks being rice and corn. I cut out all the grains. I did AIP elimination diet for a month, and got frustrated not seeing any significant change. I started adding back all the things I really missed the most like spices and nightshades and then some dairy. The brain fog and exhaustion seemed to lift without the grains in my diet, but I didn’t see the kind of improvement I was hoping for with the other symptoms.
My husband and I went on our honeymoon in Spain, and I had a few minor digestive reactions where I wasn’t feeling well. On the train trip from Spain to France I ate an entire package of Jamon Iberico de Bellota while Tim was napping. Fancy prosciutto is approved on all the diets, right?? I’m sure I drank some Cava, too. Long-aged meats are extremely high histamine. Our stay in Paris was a total disaster, I was in the hotel room most of the time and when we would venture out I was dizzy and had massive social anxiety, which had never happened to me before. I could just feel that it was food related, but I had no ideas for what else to eliminate.
Looking back, there were times where I would sit down in my wine sales job to a tasting, or with a customer at the end of the day, literally take a sip of wine, and have to leave for the restroom. I had intense cluster headaches and nausea during exercise and could not set foot in a hot yoga room for 2 years. While my face, neck and chest would turn red and splotchy, I never had any of the classic histamine-y itchiness or sinus symptoms. Knowing some more now, there are other signs from the past that histamine might become a thing for me – huge bug bite reactions, and a splotchy rash on my face and chest. Wine people are trained to always attribute any bad reaction to sulfur, so I never connected those dots.
In January 2017, I finally made the link to histamine when I was doing another round of Whole30. I had a terrible day getting sick at work, my colleague still apologizes that she let me drive home because I was such a mess. With gluten, grains, dairy, legumes, alcohol and sugar out of my diet, I was still having reactions to food. I sat in bed and Googled all the foods I had eaten, and my symptoms -“sardines” “tomato” “headache” “nausea” and histamine intolerance popped up. During the Whole30 I was unknowingly having a histamine party every day. Looking back, I sort of cringe at all my attempts to paleo harder by consuming all the bone broth and fermented foods. While I know challenge diets like Whole30 can feel restrictive, I’m personally really grateful for the program, because it finally helped me get some answers.
It took me 3 years to find get an explanation, but that was really just the start of the process. I brought my feelings about histamine intolerance to a couple local MD’s, and while I wasn’t laughed at, they didn't have anything useful to offer. I tried an FMD, we really did not jive. I started working with nutritionist Jessica Flanigan in May of 2017, beginning a supplement protocol and working a low histamine diet. I took lots of Benadryl when I flared up and the nausea and headache would go away, but that left me useless and tired out for a few days. I read all of Yasmina Ykelesntam’s and Alison Vickery’s blogs, and started to pay attention to the mindset part. I finally was seeing improvement, going weeks instead of days between reactions. I started adding in new foods and more exercise.
Here are the supplements that I find most helpful. The one thing I haven't tried is supplementing prophylactically before meals with a DAO enzyme. I just ordered the Seeking Health Histamine Block which is diamine oxidase (DAO) for the next time I travel and the food / sleep / stress conditions aren’t ideal -
My histamine supplement protocol. I’m hesitant to offer dosage here because everyone is in a different spot, this is what works for me. When in doubt go slow!
· Vitamin C – a recent OAT test showed my Vitamin C level is in the tank, which is often linked to histamine intolerance. Liposomal Vitamin C is great. I do up to 2,000mg daily
· Neuroprotek – I was taking 2, twice or three time daily, I’ve since tapered off to once a day. I’ve read not to take quercetin before working out.
· Black Seed Oil – 1 teaspoon day and night. Start slow.
I was still drinking alcohol - both wine and spirits, and having really bad reactions from booze, sometimes with only small tastes or ½ glass of wine. Alcohol blocks the enzyme DAO, which works to break down histamine. Histamine is through the roof on anything that’s fermented (think veggie ferments, salumi and aged cheese) but in wine and beer it’s exponential. For wine specifically – all red wine, most Champagnes, and a lot of richer white wines like Chardonnay go through a process called malo-lactic fermentation. This happens after the alcoholic fermentation, and is what makes white wine taste creamy and red wine from having too much acidity. It’s here where the histamine boosts to obscene levels, and why for a histamine sensitive person, a glass of light Pinot Grigio might not knock you down as much as a full-bodied Chardonnay or Cabernet. I work with winemakers every week and I’m always trying to learn more about this process.
One thing I want to talk about is fear of food. The high-histamine food lists are long, conflicting, and intimidating. For me, they bred a kind of food fear that I hadn’t experienced with any other diet, even AIP, because the high histamine foods are some of my favorites on the planet. Going with the mindset “fresh is best” and having just a little bit of a variety of the medium/higher histamine foods throughout the day or week worked better for me than “eliminate all avocado and meat and nuts and spinach and wine”. I batch cook a dish and freeze portioned food instead of keeping leftovers hanging out in the fridge. There are some great lists for anti-histamine foods that are fun to explore, they’re filled with superfoods. I purchased the Healing Histamine “Anti-Recipes” cookbook and while it’s lovely and inspirational to look at, the near-vegan and super legume heavy approach does not make me feel awesome. I’ve been eating keto for 6 months which has been a total game changer. I eat carbs when I’m feeling it, some days I fast in the AM but when I wake up hungry I don’t, and I’m playing around with more low-histamine resistant starches.
Histamine intolerance has been one of my biggest teachers, even more so than the initial shock of going gluten free. I think because there’s no black and white. Moving through all of this has taken me to places way beyond diet alone.
Things that have shifted for me in the last year after learning about histamine intolerance -
- I have a daily meditation practice.
- I’m back doing yoga, pilates, and even boot camp workouts in a heated room.
- I’m learning to be more compassionate and forgiving with myself, and ditch the perfectionist mindset.
- I stopped using toxic personal care products, and completely overhauled my skincare and makeup.
- I drink green juice instead of afternoon caffeine, and I buy frozen fish, which I used to think was gross. I eat bites of prosciutto instead of the entire package!
- I check in with myself when I start drifting into scarcity mode with food. What can I add in? What do I miss? I’m not afraid to eat too much chocolate and avocado and smoked salmon, because I know it’s all going to be fine.
- I took a hard look at my relationship with alcohol and quit drinking 2 months ago, which has been huge for my emotional and physical well-being.
- I started working with Jessica, and seeing a therapist.
- I do guided visualizations, usually in the evenings – mostly online with Tara Brach and Free & Native.
- I stopped going back to practitioners that I don't connect with.
I often see in my reading that histamine intolerance is a symptom, and not a diagnosis. I'm still working on finding a root cause. Finding a balance between compassion and control in this part of my life has been super frustrating at times, and also very rewarding.