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Infection or intolerance?
By Yasmina Ykelenstam

Having spent much of my childhood on multiple rounds of monthly antibiotics for non-existent infections, as an adult I strongly encourage parents to understand the difference between true infections and the histamine reactions that mimic them.

What is histamine? Think of histamine as the white knight - our immune system's mast cells release histamine as needed when the body sustains an injury. Histamine rides in to the rescue, allowing the healing components of our immune system to get to work in an area. Histamine is also a neurotransmitter (like serotonin), thereby affecting mood, memory and, among other things, controlling our sleep cycle and digestion. In addition to this, histamine keeps us from getting hurt when we're exposed to allergens.

However, in some people (myself included) mast cells have gone rogue, oozing far too much histamine and other inflammatory elements. This can create symptoms remarkably like those of ENT infections. Sadly few GPs nowadays take the time to swab suspected infected areas and culture the bacteria before prescribing antibiotics.

Unlike allergies, an excess of histamine due to lack of the histamine-lowering enzymes (‘diamine oxidase’ and ‘HNMT’) or mast cell instability can cause one to react to many high histamine foods and chemicals, as well as extremes of temperature, stress and altitude.

Too much histamine in the body can cause a remarkably diverse set of symptoms which can be difficult to distinguish from those of classic allergies. Many go through years of fruitless allergy testing before arriving at a diagnosis of histamine intolerance.

Symptoms of histamine intolerance

Ear, nose and throat: runny nose, post nasal drip, sore throat, fever, glue ear, sneezing, ear ache, wheezing, asthma, coughing (especially at night), swollen lips or tongue.

Digestive: nausea, vomiting, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.

Skin: hives, bumps, rash, eczema or swelling of the skin.

Behavioural: sleeplessness, anxiety, fear, attention problems, foggy brain and autistic tendencies.

I've found the tell tale signs in children to be lip swelling, puffy eyes, digestive problems, stuffy nose, coughing, manic bursts of energy (more than the norm for kids anyway), sudden changes in mood during or after meals, inability to sleep, skin complaints and night terrors. 

High histamine foods

Fermented foods (including cheese), yeast (and breads made with it), avocado, spinach, tomatoes, all soy products, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, apricots, peaches, plums, grapes, pineapples, raisins, overripe fruit, shellfish, all processed and pickled meats and fish, red beans, green peas, walnuts, pecans, BHA and BHT (preservatives), food colouring, curry powder, cinnamon, chocolate, cocoa, cola-type drinks, all teas other than some herbal, vinegar, Marmite, Oxo andVegemite. 

What makes it confusing is that many people assume the problem to be an allergy, gluten or dairy intolerance. As they are inflammatory (histamine causes major inflammation), removing shellfish, dairy and gluten ingredients often leads to a temporary alleviation of most symptoms as the body is given a break from the chronic inflammation. Confusingly, reactions can take up to two days to manifest.

I know it seems like a long list but the immediate changes in behaviour and quality of life make it more than worth it. In my case, I was forced to re-evaluate a career as an international television news producer (CNN/BBC) due to excess histamine. Had I known back then that I could wave goodbye to decades of sinusitis, bronchitis, dizziness, behavioural issues, depression and repeated health crises by making these dietary changes, I would have signed on immediately! 

About the Author

Yasmina Ykelenstam

Yasmina Ykelenstam is the author of six low histamine ebooks, including ‘Low Histamine On the Go’, ‘The Low Histamine Dessert Book’, ‘The Low Histamine Beauty Survival Guide’ and ‘The DAO Support Cook Book’, as well as being the founder of

Previously she was an international TV news producer, writer and researcher, as well as a contributing reporter for CNN and the BBC. In that time she covered Libya’s renouncement of WMD, produced interviews with Moammar Ghadafi, Saif al Islam Ghadafi and co-ordinated coverage of Hezbollah’s anti-government protests including the Lebanese political assassination campaign. By 2006, she was a member of the CNN team and was awarded an Edward R. Murrow for coverage of the Lebanon War.

Her first step to recovery was giving it all up. 

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