When thinking about how food sensitivities and/or intolerances may be affecting our health, something that is often overlooked is the role that biogenic amines may be playing.
What are Biogenic Amines?
Biogenic amines are a group of chemicals derived from amino acids (and therefore protein-containing foods) that have a number of functions and effects within the body, some desirable, and some not. The most well known biogenic amines are the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline, and histamine, best known for its role in allergies. Others, which are less well known, include tyramine, tryptamine, and phenylethylamine.
These biogenic amines may act as neurotransmitters, be involved in local immune responses (such as the inflammation produced by histamine release), or regulate functions of the gut.
The classic neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline are all essential to proper brain function. Imbalances causes problems such as depression and anxiety.
In relation to food intolerances however, we are more concerned with the biogenic amines contained in foods and beverages that can cause local symptoms in the gut includig nausea, diarrhoea, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as triggering symptoms elsewhere in the body, such as migraines, asthma, and hives.
Dietary Sources of Biogenic Amines
Biogenic amines are present in both plant and animal foods. They are produced when certain bacteria metabolise specific amino acids in food and beverages. For example, bacteria of the enterobacteriaceae group (e.g. E.coli, klebsiella, proteus, salmonella) breakdown the amino acid histidine, to form histamine.
Major sources of biogenic amines in the diet include:
- Aged Cheese
- Fermented/Pickled Foods (sauerkraut, soy sauce, fish sauce, miso, tofu)
- Processed, Cured and Pickled Meats
- Red Wine
Other foods and drinks that either contain biogenic amines or increase levels in the gut include:
- Fruits (avocado, citrus fruit, grapes, papaya, pineapples, plums, strawberries)
- Vegetables (aubergine/eggplant, spinach)
- Nuts (peanuts, coconuts, Brazil nuts)
- Dried Fruit (raisins, figs)
- Fish (particularly tuna and mackerel)
- Drinks (beer, chianti, vermouth)
Health Problems Associated with Biogenic Amines
The dietary biogenic amines that appear to trigger symptoms in some people are histamine, tyramine, and phenylethylamine.
Histamine - It is now estimated that up to 5% of the adult population suffer from hitamine intolerance (HIT), making it a major cause of food intolerance. HIT can cause digestive upsets including chronic diarrhoea or constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, and nausea. It may also causes systemic symptoms such as migraines, low blood pressure (hypotension), and palpitations. Finally, as you may expect, HIT can trigger allergic conditions including hayfever, eczema, asthma, and hives.
Tyramine - Has a strong association with migraine, high blood pressure (hypertension), depression, and Parkinson's disease. Tyramine is a major problem for people taking MAOI antidepressant drugs as they block its breakdown which can result in dangerously high blood pressure.
Phenylethylamine - Connected to migraine headaches, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and schizophrenia.
Dirk Budka, an expert on biogenic amine intolerances, believes that 40% of those suffering from IBS can be helped by addressing such intolerances. He also states that they are an important underlying factor in allergic conditions such as hayfever, eczema, and asthma, but are not considered by many healthcare practitioners (both from conventional and alternative/complementary medicine backgrounds).
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About: Matthew Hogg ("Maff")
Diagnosed with M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome aged only 11 years old and subsequently associated illnesses including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Despite his own struggles he has constantly sought to educate and support others suffering from such "invisible illnesses" through his website, The Environmental Illness Resource. He fully recovered from MCS using his own approach and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional Health.