If you’ve suffered from sleep issues, you may have tried an over-the-counter histamine medication such as Benadryl, Unisom, ZzzQuil, or Tylenol PM. Yes, all of these medications act the same way, reducing the histamine load in the body so you can sleep better.
However, long-term use of these drugs is not advised since they have side effects, one of the most notable ones being increased risk of dementia.
What are histamines and what do they have to do with sleep?
Histamine is a chemical found in some of our body’s cells. When a person is allergic or sensitive to an environmental substance (e.g. pollen, dust) or certain foods, the immune system believes that this is something that could hurt your body. In order to protect you, it starts a number of reactions that tells your body to release histamine into your bloodstream. This release can cause some of the typical symptoms related to allergies, such as runny nose or itchy eyes.
What you might not be aware of is that histamine is actually a neurotransmitter and is closely connected to the wake–sleep cycle. Histamine is higher during the day and lowest at night.
If you are accumulating too much histamine or simply cannot clear out even “normal” amounts, it may be contributing to your sleep issues.
Symptoms with histamine issues
Some of the symptoms you may experience with histamine intolerance: itchiness, skin redness, flushing, red spots, skin rash, eczema, rosacea, hives, diarrhea, nausea, runny nose, postnasal drip, bronchoconstriction, and shortness of breath. Though you may have other, not-so-obvious histamine issues and symptoms.
Another possibility is that you may notice being sensitive to high-histamine foods, otherwise mostly seen as healthy, such as fermented vegetables, pickles, kombucha, fermented soy products, and fermented grains. Other foods high in histamines are fermented dairy products, cured meats, wine, and beer. Also, you might have a reaction after eating leftover food (cooked food builds histamine the longer it sits).
The bronchoconstriction can cause lower oxygen supply and therefore create more health issues. Since it creates a stress response in the body, adrenaline (epinephrine) may compound the sleep issues. As mentioned before, histamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, so the two combined could easily cause sleepless nights.
A more complex issue that can be present in people is what we call Mast Cell Activation. Mast cells are part of the immune system, though not as well known as white blood cells. Their job is dealing with toxins and infectious agents; therefore, the highest numbers are found in tissues close to the outside world—sinuses, throat, gastrointestinal tract, skin, respiratory tract, and genito-urinary tract. They are filled with granules that have potential energy that stimulates production of histamine. When overstimulated by toxicity, mast cells start overreacting to foods, drinks, scents, chemicals, etc. In the most extreme situations, someone could even have a strong reaction from a glass of water.
What if I react to high-histamine foods?
The first step is to assess if indeed you react to the high-histamine foods by doing a low-histamine diet for four weeks. Notice if your symptoms improve. Then you can gradually introduce one food at a time every three days, and notice whether any symptoms arise. Many of the foods that are eliminated in the low-histamine diet are very nutritious, so it’s important to navigate this properly and only stay on it for the shortest amount of time before you can eat a balanced diet again.
If your symptoms are severe, and you know histamines are a problem from assessing your genes (yes, your genes can play a role in this) and symptoms, you may also choose an herbal formula that will help your body break down the histamines.
Looking deeper at histamine issues as they relate to foods
When it comes to diet, three categories of foods affect histamine levels.:
We have histamine-rich foods: all kinds of fermented foods, fermented alcohols, dried foods, cured meats, most citrus, smoked meats, aged cheeses, and some veggies such as avocados.
Then, there are histamine-releasing foods (these foods may not be high in histamine, but they stimulate the histamine production): alcohol, bananas, chocolate, nuts, tomatoes, and strawberries.
Lastly, there are foods that block DAO production (this is a gene that helps clear histamines), such as alcohol, black tea, green tea, and some energy drinks.
Steps to lower histamines and heal your sleep
Here are a few steps to take to heal. Eat a low-histamine diet that eliminates high-histamine foods or foods that work with your genes—such foods are fresh-cooked meat and poultry, fresh-caught fish, gluten-free grains, vegetables, and fruits (except the ones on the high-histamine list), and herbal teas.
Support your body with herbs and supplements such as quercetin. This can help with environmental allergies as well. When environmental allergies are present, looking at the gut health can move the needle in the right direction so you can heal. In addition, some foods can cross-react with certain environmental allergens. For example, if you are sensitive or allergic to cherries or peaches, it can trigger or make your pollen allergies worse.
Avoid eating foods that have been cooked more than 24 hours ago (for very sensitive cases, avoid eating any leftovers until healing progresses). Choose the freshest meat possible.
Look at possible nutrient and vitamin deficiencies. In order to break down histamines properly, we need optimal amounts of vitamin B6, magnesium, vitamin C, copper, and zinc.