Histamine is a nitrogen based compound involved in immune response and regulation of the gut that also functions as a neurotransmitter, with effects on sleep-wake cycles and the uptake of testosterone, to name but two. There will be many functions for histamine in the body that are as of yet unknown, to date we know of 23 of them. Histamines are released by the body in times of stress and allergy or foreign protein attack, their release in an immunological sense is triggered by contact of an allergen with an antibody bound cell. These cells are most common at the sites of greatest potential injury, for example: lungs, mouth, nose, sinuses, surface of the intestinal lumen (basically, gut-tube), and the blood vessels. Most people know about histamines from symptoms related to these sites. Histamines occur naturally in the body and in some foods, and a few foods promote histamine production. Fermented foods are known to increase histamine levels, so when we ferment foods that are naturally high in histamines, or actively promote histamine production, we are increasing their already high levels of histamines. The most relevant foods for basic fermentation practices are cabbage (high histamine level), and milk (promotes histamine production).
It is common for us, with the cultural influences we have, to believe that more of a good thing can only be better. This is part of a fundamental predisposition to addiction that exists within most cultures of the earth, and in the case of fermented foods, less is definitely more. This is most important when first trying fermented foods, and because many people who develop an interest in fermented foods are interested in addressing some specific (or even general) health concern, quite often the immune response/inflammation cycle is already in place, and dumping high levels of histamines into such a system is a recipe for disaster.
There is a legitimate cause of symptoms that mirror the symptoms of histamine overload or intolerance in the realm of fermented foods, and this is the phenomenon called ‘die back’. Basically, as good bacteria replace bad bacteria within the different niches of the gut, the bad guys die, and if they die in number, quite a toxic load is placed on the body, and until the body can deal with this, there can be symptoms of nausea, disturbance of the mind, irritation of the mucosal membranes, headache, itching, intolerance to stimuli, etc. This is akin to the ‘healing crisis’ in many bodily therapies where toxins are released for elimination, but as a reflexologist, my goal was always to work to the point just below where these effects would become apparent. A high toxic load never does anyone any good.
So, the advice of well meaning people when told about these symptoms can run like this – “it’s die off, it’s a good thing. It means you’re getting better. Take more fermented food. You’ll see, you’ll be fine”. Often though, this is not die off, but a histamine reaction, and pumping more histamines into an inflamed system can do no good. Many people go through this, follow the wrong advice, and eventually give up fermented foods for good, thinking “they are just not for me”. This is a shame. Even the most robustly healthy individual shouldn’t eat vast amounts of fermented food on a regular basis. There is just no need, and as discussed above, there may be pitfalls. With fermented food, less is more; we can’t repeat that to ourselves enough. We want a variety of different ferments, just a little of each, but regularly. When first starting out, take it easy, and begin with near homeopathic doses, especially if you know you have a sensitive gut. Milk kefir, which is an amazing health tonic on so many levels, can cause severe histamine reactions if too much is consumed too soon. Start with a teaspoon a day for a few days and listen to your body. If all is well, take a bit more for a few days, and so on. Having a cup out of the blue won’t do you much harm, but starting on a cup or more, and having that every day may cause problems. Or it may not. The best skill we can cultivate is the ability to listen to our bodies.
Histamine intolerance in general is best treated by first addressing inappropriate and chronic inflammation within the body. Remove trigger foods (histamine bearing or forming foods) from the diet, and eliminate as far as possible from the diet and environment all known neurotoxins (e.g. mercury, aluminium, fluoride, msg, artificial sweeteners). Once the body has settled, some histamine bearing and forming foods may be introduced back into the diet without ill-effect. Reintroduce them one at a time at near-homeopathic doses, and note the effects. Anything that causes a reaction should be avoided, but many people find that they are able to eat foods that once caused them misery without any undue effects when they have dealt with inflammation within the body.
Use your common sense, be gentle on your body, and listen to it. Strategies for addressing inflammation may be found in my kindle book Calming and Repopulating the Gut.
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