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Welcome to Austin, now lay off the Sauerkraut

I moved to Austin not too long ago, and love it.

However, Austin has an allergy problem.

A really big allergy problem.

In fact, if you’re new to Austin and are wondering why you feel “off,” or even downright sad, allergies could be to blame. Absence of a runny nose doesn’t mean absence of allergy, there is good science emerging which ties ties the presence of allergies with mild depression and an unsettled mind.

Austin’s allergy problem

In Austin, allergy is a constant problem because there is always something in the air that can cause problems.

Check out this Allergy Calendar a local allergist created:

Calendar credit

As the calendar demonstrates, mold and dust mites are present no matter the season. My grass, dust, and ragweed allergies are very much at home here in Texas Hill Country.

Forum posts are full of allergy stories, with this man complaining on TripAdvisor of a mystery allergy.

I was in Austin last year around late September/early October and suffered from some sort of allergy that caused me choke up and cough. I was not sick because it hit me while still on the plane before landing and stopped right after I left Texas. I had someone tell me that it was ragweed and another tell me that it was cedar fever. I’m going back in a couple of weeks and I want to be prepared.

Lay off the sauerkraut

So, you’re one of the thousands of people who just moved to Austin. What can you do to keep allergy symptoms at bay?

For starters, lay off the Sauerkraut.

I’m not kidding.

Sauerkraut is high in histamine, and you’re going to need to keep an eye on your histamine levels if you want to have staying power in ATX.

Let me explain.

What is histamine?

When your body perceives a threat from a foreign invader it ramps up the immune system to fight back. Your everyday, run of the mill allergic reactions are the body responding to an otherwise harmless substance, like pollen, with an immune reaction.

When the immune system is activated, histamine is the first line of defense. Leukocytes (a fancy word for immune cells) store and release histamine when they perceive an invader. Your body needs histamine, it’s an important neurotransmitter. But too much can cause major problems, especially if you have genetic mutations that make it harder for your body to clear histamine.

Genetics and histamine

Your body uses two enzymes Diamine Oxidase (DAO) and histamine N-methyltransferase (HNMT) to clear histamine. HNMT clears histamine in the cell. DAO scavenges excess “free floating” histamine, and is generally regarded as the more important of the two enzymes. (R) (R)

Not everyone has the same capacity for producing DAO.

Mutations in the AOC1 gene are associated with decreased DAO enzyme activity. Certain foods and medication also interfere with DAO production in the gut. Alcohol, antibiotics, and medications like Motrin, are some of the worst offenders.

We’ll address that in more detail later in the post, but first, let’s get you familiar with the concept of “histamine load,” and why it’s so important to your survival in Austin.

Understanding histamine load

Everyone has a limit of histamine their body can handle before they start to have symptoms. The trouble starts when your total histamine exceeds your body’s ability to clear it. We’ll call this the histamine load.

This is Austin, so think of your histamine tolerance as the number of drinks it takes for you to feel a buzz. Some people have a couple beers and they’re feeling great. Others need a six pack. You get the idea. The same principle applies to histamine, and it’s your AOC1 gene and DAO production that helps determine how much histamine you can tolerate without feeling symptoms.

Sauerkraut = Pollen?

Both histamine rich foods, like sauerkraut, and traditional allergies contribute to the histamine load. This means that the guy suffering from “cedar fever” could have a reduced tolerance for foods high in histamine during Austin’s winter months. Dr. Janice Joneja wrote an excellent blog post on histamine intolerance that all Austin allergy sufferers should read.

This quote stands out:

A person with histamine intolerance will typically experience a constant fluctuation in the signs and symptoms of histamine excess in response to changing conditions. For example, when a person is experiencing allergy to air-borne allergens such as seasonal pollens, the histamine released in the allergic response alone might put them into the symptom range. In such a case, avoiding histamine-associated foods will no longer relieve their symptoms because their total level of histamine will remain above their limit of tolerance. This explains the observation that during their “pollen allergy season” many people find themselves reacting to foods (usually histamine-rich foods) that they could normally eat with impunity.

Foods that are high in histamine

Now you’re starting to get the picture. Based on what’s happening with air-borne allergens, your food sensitivities may fluctuate. We know about sauerkraut, what other foods are highest in histamine?

Note: this is a list that changes based on which blog post you read. I’ve listed consensus choices below:

  • Alcohol (major source of histamine and blocks DAO production)
  • Dairy products
  • Fermented foods (sauerkraut, kefir, kimchee)
  • Pickles
  • Vinegar (even apple cider vinegar)
  • Egg (small amounts in a baked product won’t kill you per Dr. Joneja)
  • Left overs (histamine levels rise at refrigerator temperatures, need to freeze left overs in Austin)
  • Processed meats
  • Orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, cherries, grapes, strawberries, apricots
  • Raspberries, pineapple
  • Cranberries, prunes
  • Loganberries, Dates
  • Raisins, currants (fresh or dried)
  • Tomatoes, tomato sauces, ketchup
  • Soy and soy products (no soy sauce at Uchi during your trigger months)
  • Spinach, red beans
  • Eggplant, olives in vinegar or brine
  • Pumpkin
  • Avocado (Ugh)
  • Pickles (vinegar)
  • Tartrazine and other artificial food colours
  • Preservatives, especially Benzoates and Sulphites
  • Cinnamon, cloves
  • Chilli powder, anise
  • Curry powder, nutmeg
  • Chocolate
  • Tea

Don’t cry!

There are solutions to this problem that I will get to in a minute. Before I do, let’s discuss some of the common symptoms of histamine intolerance.

Diagnosing histamine intolerance

Symptoms commonly associated with histamine intolerance:

  • Pruritus (itching especially of the skin, eyes, ears, and nose)
  • Hives
  • Feeling like you have an irritated, itchy or swollen throat and neck
  • Hypotension (drop in blood pressure)
  • Tachycardia (unusually high heart rate, “heart racing”)
  • Free floating anxiety or panic attack
  • Chest pain
  • Nasal congestion and runny nose
  • Conjunctivitis (irritated, watery, reddened eyes)
  • Headaches and migraine
  • Fatigue, confusion, irritability
  • Very occasionally loss of consciousness usually lasting for only one or two seconds
  • Digestive tract upset, especially heartburn, “indigestion”, and reflux

Strategies for defeating Austin allergies

If you are reading this post and it’s resonating with you, it’s now time to figure out your individual histamine load. Knowing your tolerance for histamine will help you solve the problem.

The histamine load formula is a combination of four factors: gut health, genetics, air-borne allergens and diet.

The key is to stay under your histamine threshold so symptoms aren’t triggered.

Here are some survival tips.

Traditional allergy testing

The logical place to begin is with traditional allergy testing. A simple skin prick test will be able to tell you what your environmental triggers are. You can then cross reference this against the Austin allergy calendar to get an idea of when your histamine sensitive times might be.

For me, it’s when the grass pollen begins. I was fine up until early March, and ever since I’ve been feeling it.

See also: Are transglutaminase IgG antibodies evidence of gluten sensitivity?

Genetic testing

In addition to learning fun facts about your ancestry, your genetic report from 23andme will tell you your status for the most clinically significant genes that regulate histamine. There are a number of genes to look at, but ACO1 and HNMT have the most data right now.

Mutations in these genes, especially homozygous mutations, where you inherit two copies of the mutation, may give you a clue that you need to be extra vigilant with histamine.

Gut health

One of the big implications of your genetic tests will be how efficiently your body makes DAO, an enzyme that breaks down histamine. If you see mutations, you can also have blood tests done to test your DAO levels.

As we’ve discussed, mutations in DAO regulating genes can put you at a disadvantage when it comes to allergies. DAO is produced in the gut and reduced DAO activity is associated with leaky gut and other chronic inflammatory bowel conditions. (R) (R) (R)

Some have speculated that decreased DAO activity also causes an uptick in zonulin production, a protein associated with eating wheat and intestinal permeability (leaky gut). (R) Leaky gut is a major issue because it allows all sorts of bacteria, bacteria that are intended to stay in the gut, out into the blood stream where they are funneled through the liver. This causes a chronic immune response. (R)

To make matters worse, antibiotic use, alcohol, or regularly popping Motrin or Aspirin, all contribute to decreased DAO and gut dysfunction. Antibiotics can kill the good bacteria in the gut that break down histamine, leaving in their wake bacteria that actually make histamine! (R) Candida, for example, causes immune cells to release histamine.

If you’re suffering through a rough allergy season in Austin, maintaining gut health should be a big priority.

I’ve had great success with the popular probiotic strain B. Longum.

Food triggers

You knew this was coming. If you have some combination of a compromised gut, paired with seasonal allergies and a decreased genetic ability to clear histamine, you’ll want to turn your attention to food to keep your histamine load under control. This means no sauerkraut while the cedar is in bloom. Remember that you won’t immediately react to high histamine food as you would a food you were allergic to, it can take time for the levels of histamine to rise in your system.

Oh, and stay away from buffets. The longer a food sits out, the greater the histamine count.

Do some yoga

Believe it or not, exercise actually releases histamine, so it may be best to avoid hard cardio workouts when your allergy calendar isn’t looking favorable. (R) By contrast, yoga will reduce inflammation and not cause a spike in histamine.

I’m a Sukha Yoga guy myself. See you there.


Antihistamines, like Claritin and Zyrtec, are an option, and do work. But they work by blocking histamine receptors, not the production of histamine. Especially if you have leaky gut, long term use of antihistamines has the potential to put added strain on your liver and your gut will stay compromised.

Dr. Joneja has this to say about long term antihistamine use:

Antihistamines stop histamine activity by blocking their entrance.  If this blockage is constant the immune system sees this as a problem, and senses that it must be producing inadequate levels of histamine. It therefore increases its production of histamine.  Consequently, over the long term, there is even more histamine for the enzymes to break down, and the problem of histamine intolerance becomes even worse.

Air filters

I keep a Blue Air filter (403 model) running in my bedroom at all times, and swear by it. Blue Air is a Swedish company that makes very nice quality HEPA filters that remove all the air-borne allergens floating around your bedroom (the filters remove 99.7% of pollen, smoke, dust, etc.). I am seriously considering one of the bigger models for my living room. The filters are WIFI enabled, and they even have an app that allows you to monitor indoor and outdoor air quality.


There are multiple supplements that are proven to aid the body in breaking down histamine. Most of them like Vitamin B6 (only take in very small doses as it can cause nerve damage), Vitamin C and copper are DAO cofactors, meaning they’ll help your body make the enzyme that breaks down histamine. (R)

Quercetin, long known as a natural antihistamine, has an inhibitory effect on the mast cells that release histamine. See the AOC1 page for more information.

Also check out this post I wrote on apples, which are one of the biggest dietary sources of quercetin.

Closing thoughts

The big takeaway is that food, in combination with allergens in the environment, can cause a histamine overload, especially in places like Austin where pollen, mold and dust are constantly running amuck. Understanding your genetic capacity for clearing all this histamine can help you plan an allergy regimen that takes your body’s capacity for producing DAO into account. Understanding the process of clearing histamine from your system could be the key to enjoying life in Austin.

Welcome to Austin, now lay off the Sauerkraut.

John O'Connor

John O'Connor is the founder of Gene Food. Read his full bio here.

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