The arrival of spring can trigger common symptoms including itchy eyes, stuffy sinuses and a scratchy throat. But many women are unaware that high levels of histamines triggered by seasonal and food-related allergies can also upset their hormone balance, says naturopath and author of Healthy Hormones: A Practical Guide to Balancing Your Hormones, Belinda Kirkpatrick.
Hormone imbalances can also cause unpleasant symptoms including PMS and heavy periods, menstrual headaches and pain, extreme fatigue with periods, elevated oestrogen levels, reflux, heartburn, insomnia, brain fog, hives and nasal congestion. Unfortunately many women believe these common hormone-related problems are just a normal part of the menstrual cycle or something females must learn to grin and bear. But there are many things you can do to manage your histamine response and help balance your hormones.
Histamine problems are more common in females than males because we have more oestrogen. And they can get worse just before our period when our oestrogen levels rise.
Basically, histamines are substances made by immune cells called mast cells. They do a lot of good things including fighting infections, supporting immunity and digestion plus regulating sleep, libido, fertility and hormone levels. But as mentioned earlier, histamine overload can have unpleasant effects.
“The release of histamine is typically released along with an enzyme called diamine oxidase (DAO),” says Kirkpatrick. “This enzyme helps to break down histamine. If your body doesn’t produce enough DAO, histamine can build up in the body and lead to symptoms. Oestrogen can reduce the body’s production of DAO which explains why histamine reactions can often be related back to the menstrual cycle.”
In other words, around ovulation and just before your period, rising oestrogen levels can decrease DAO enzyme production which makes you less able to break down histamines. In turn, allergies or asthma can be worse around this time.
Kirkpatrick says women who have an excess of oestrogen in comparison to progesterone often experience more symptoms due to oestrogen increasing histamine release and reducing its breakdown. Signs of high oestrogen/low progesterone can include: spotting before periods, heavy periods, period pain, anxiety, fluid retention, PMS and premenstrual breast swelling.
Histamine issues can affect older women too. “Although menopause is a time of low oestrogen, it is also a time of even lower (or non-existent progesterone) which results in oestrogen still being the dominant hormone and histamine issues are very common around this time,” Kirkpatrick says.
Symptoms of histamine overload can also emerge when our exposure to allergens is more than our immune system can tolerate. “Our bodies and immune systems can tolerate a certain level of allergens and this varies greatly between individuals,” says Kirkpatrick. “Some people only need a minute exposure to have a big reaction (anaphylaxis) while others can tolerate a reasonable amount before they exhibit signs of reaction.”
In addition to regular allergy symptoms, the long-term effects of high histamine levels can include irregular periods, painful periods, menstrual migraines, extreme fatigue and a worsening of allergy symptoms around your cycle, says Kirkpatrick. “These symptoms can really interfere with day to day functioning and can also lead to mood and sleep disturbance,” she says.
Common histamine triggers include pollen, grass, dust mites and mould. Certain foods also contain histamines including alcohol (especially wine), bananas, avocados, chocolate, cured or smoked meats, fermented foods such as yoghurt, sauerkraut and kefir, mushrooms, spinach, tomato, eggplant, spices (cinnamon, chilli, curry powder), strawberries, vinegar and yeast.
Of course many of these foods have their benefits. But if you suffer from histamine or hormone-related symptoms then it’s worth seeing a qualified health practitioner to work out which ones you should avoid and other strategies to lower your histamine response says Kirkpatrick. “When histamine builds up, symptoms can be amplified so any reduction in histamine can reduce symptom severity,” she says. “Reducing histamine foods doesn’t always reduce seasonal allergies but it is certainly worth a try and reducing them often helps with eczema, asthma, fatigue and hormonal complaints.”
In addition to avoiding known allergens and reducing histamine-containing foods, you can support your body by using herbal medicines or supplements that contain histamine blockers such as bioflavonoids including quercetin and bromelain, turmeric, nettle leaf, probiotics, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and vitamin D, says Kirkpatrick.
“You can also support your immune system by keeping your gut flora healthy by minimising sugar and bumping up fresh veggies and salad (aim for 4-5 cups most days),” she says. “Alcohol, stress and NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen) can block histamine clearance so try to minimise these if you are having symptoms.”