In addition to the liver, it is important to optimize gut health. Approximately 70-80% of your immune system resides in your gastrointestinal tract. This is why the foods you choose to eat can help or hinder your immune system.
An allergy is a hyperactive response of the immune system to substances called “allergens”—including (but not limited to) food, pollen, dust mites, mold, medications and insect stings—that your body perceives as “foreign”.
Histamine as a “First Responder”
Once an allergic response is activated, histamine is released. Histamine helps regulate the immune system. Its role is that of a “first responder”. The release of histamine is your body’s way of trying to protect you from perceived “foreign invaders” or irritants.
Some examples of histamine-induced reactions:
–You break out in hives after eating strawberries.
–Your eyes are itchy and watery, and you can’t stop sneezing after spending a beautiful spring day outside.
–You feel exhausted and spacy as trees begin to bud.
–You’re bitten by a mosquito, and the site of that bite swells, reddens and itches like mad.
As a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, histamine communicates messages from nerve cells to target cells in the muscles, glands or other nerves. Histamine travels through the bloodstream, acting on many parts of the body, including your gut, skin, brain, lungs and heart. Because it is a neurotransmitter, histamine can also directly influence mental health and behavior.1
Histamine triggers the release of gastric (stomach) acid, so it plays an important role in digestion and, therefore, immune health since apx. 80% of the immune system resides in the gut. Histamine can also be produced in response to food intolerances and/or food allergies.
Histamine is an essential neurotransmitter, but it can become problematic when it builds up in the body. Excess histamine can build up in those who have a genetic mutation of DAO (D-amino acid oxidase), a gene that helps break down histamine. That said, even if you don’t have a DAO genetic mutation, lifestyle factors can contribute to low DAO activity that leads to excess histamine in the body, including: 2, 3
–Certain medications (e.g., NSAIDs, medications for acid reflux, antidepressants and immune suppressants)
–Inflammatory GI conditions like Crohn’s, IBS and colitis
High histamine levels can trigger symptoms that are typically associated with allergy symptoms, such as a sneezing, nasal congestion, difficulty breathing, flushing, headaches/migraines, fatigue, rashes, hives, changes in heart rate or blood pressure, watery eyes, among others. An inability to break down histamine can lead to a condition called “histamine intolerance”, characterized by excess histamine levels in the body that can make you feel like you are allergic to everything all the time!
Foods that are high in histamine include:4
–Frozen, smoked or canned fish
–Alcohol (e.g., wine, especially red wine; beer; Champagne)
–Fermented foods (e.g., sauerkraut, yogurt, kombucha)
–Vinegar-containing foods (e.g., like olives and pickles)
–Dried, smoked, cured meats (e.g., bacon and sausage)
Foods that promote the release of histamine include:
–Cacao / Chocolate
Leaky Gut Can Worsen Allergy Symptoms
Having intestinal permeability, or a “leaky gut” can lead to (or exacerbate) allergies. Your gut becomes leaky through a poor (high sugar) diet; chronic physical, mental or emotional stress; toxins in food, water or our environment; and poor gut flora (too much bad bacteria; too little good bacteria). Our digestive tract is protected by a gate-like gut barrier that allows specific substances (e.g., vitamins and minerals) to go through, while keeping “foreign invaders”—such as food proteins, undigested food particles, bacteria, viruses, parasites and other xenobiotics (disease-causing compounds)—out of the bloodstream. With a compromised or “leaky” gut barrier, however, things like bad bacteria, toxic waste and gluten, can pass from the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. This creates inflammation throughout the body, triggering—or worsening—allergy symptoms.
The following eating strategies can help minimize the effects of spring allergy symptoms:
1. Eliminate or reduce caffeine. Caffeine can inhibit the breakdown of histamine in your body and promote the release of histamine.5
2. Eliminate or limit alcohol. Remember: alcohol, especially red wine, is a major source of histamine!6
3. Remove any foods, to which you have a known or suspected sensitivity. Eating foods to which you are sensitive creates more inflammation, forcing your immune system to work overtime. Common culprits include wheat, gluten, dairy, soy, corn, shellfish, eggs and peanuts.
4. Minimize consumption of high histamine foods. As much as possible, avoid the main offenders, especially during allergy season: fermented foods, fermented beverages, including alcohol, aged cheeses; dried, smoked and cured meats; vinegar-containing foods; processed foods (often contain preservatives, which are high in histamine); tomatoes, spinach and dried fruit. Be sure to check the pollen count. When it’s high, you’ll want to be especially mindful of making low-histamine food choices that day.
5. Eat fresh foods and freeze leftovers. What to eat? Stick with freshly cooked meats, poultry and fish; eggs; vegetables (especially leafy greens); fresh herbs; non-dairy milks and herbal teas. Store any leftovers in the freezer since the bacteria that produce histamines start to build up right away in leftovers, even when stored in the refrigerator.
6. Eliminate refined and processed sugars. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugars a day. Refined sugar consumption depresses immune function. One study found that consuming 3.5 ounces of a simple carbohydrate (e.g., fructose, honey, pasteurized orange juice) suppressed the immune system within 30 minutes of ingestion and lasted up to 5 hours.11 Not only does sugar lower your immune function, it also increases inflammation. And, since allergy symptoms are the result of inflammation caused by the release of histamine, anything that makes you more inflamed (like sugar) worsens allergies.
7. Avoid foods to which you have a known allergy or sensitivity AND cross react with seasonal pollen. For example, the pollen in birch is similar to the proteins in foods, like almonds, apples, carrots, celery, parsley, pear and plum. If you are allergic to birch pollen, and you eat, say, celery, your body can’t tell the difference between the pollen and the food protein in celery. Your immune system gets confused and treats the celery like a “foreign invader”, triggering an allergic reaction. This is “cross-reactivity”. Read more about Pollen-Food Syndrome.
8. Move your body daily—to tolerance. During allergy season, you may experience headaches, fatigue and lethargy as your immune system battles allergens. Instead of pushing your body to exercise hard and long, give your body the rest it craves. Exercise to tolerance. Choose gentler forms of movement: taking long walks, yoga, pilates, stretching or any other movement that you enjoy.
9. Sleep 8 to 9 hours. Sleep is vital to immune health. During allergy season, you will likely be more fatigued than usual since your immune system is working overtime to fight allergens. Help your immune system recharge by being in bed between 10PM and 11PM and getting 8 to 9 hours of restorative sleep.
10. Supplement to support liver and immune health. Take a high-quality probiotic. I favor this dairy-free probiotic FloraMend to support digestive and immune health. A big plus is that it does not need to be refrigerated. Other supplements that are helpful, especially during allergy season (and which I take myself) include: Quercetin, Vitamin D with K2, Vitamin C with Flavanoids and Liver GI Detox.
11. Do a spring cleanse. If you’re an allergy sufferer, spring is the perfect time to do a whole foods-based cleanse, like my DIY 7-Day Body Reset Cleanse, which eliminates common food allergens, including many high histamine foods, and supports liver detoxification. Removing foods to which you are sensitive—even temporarily—can help improve digestive health, boost immunity and tame inflammation in the body, enabling you to experience greater relief from allergy symptoms.
Continue Reading About Allergies (see below):
Spring Allergies? Love Your Liver! (Part 1)
The Seasonal Allergy-Food Connection (Part 2)
1, 2 Metabolichealing.com
3, 4 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. May 1, 2007.
5 American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. Sept. 2014. Vol. 307. No. 6
6 Alcohol & Alcoholism. March 1999. Vol. 34. Issue 2.