Overcoming anxiety and insomnia with a low histamine diet
Updated: Aug 4, 2020
A young man came to see me as he has been suffering from insomnia since moving to a new city, but over time it developed into a beast of its own. He's worried about sleeping - he frets over going to bed, he lies there with thoughts of how terrible his next day will be if he can't get enough sleep now, he looks at his clock to confirm that he really hadn't slept by 3am. And then he started getting diarrhoea in the middle of the night because he was so anxious about his sleep, which obviously doesn't help if you feel the urge to eliminate 5 or 6 times throughout the night.
As the story unravelled, I noted a few points: he has been taking a regular anti-histamine and nasal spray for years to deal with a stuffy nose; he sometimes has itchy rashes over his body, which are sometimes brought on by stress or certain types of food; he reported feeling agitated and restless, as if his mind is about to explode from too many thoughts. He's also a mouth breather due to years of blocked nose, and his diet consists of a lot of spicy foods with some alcohol thrown in at night to help him sleep.
I suspected that the overproduction of histamine might be part of the reason that is perpetuating his symptoms. Histamine is a brain chemical as well as part of the immune system to "flush things out", and it helps to make us more alert so we can identify the threats and deal with it. Great if it's an acute problem; not so great if it's a chronic one. Taking an anti-histamine only blocks the cells from receiving the histamine signal, and the body will create even more histamine to send a stronger signal. Then the feedback loop becomes broken and things start to go awry.
So, instead of reaching for the prescription pad, I asked him to the following:
1) Remove the top histamine-rich foods in his diet, especially chocolate, alcohol, spices, processed, aged or fermented foods
2) Change his pillow and mattress (it's a hand-me-down from his landlord's previous tenants, yuck)
3) Set up a HEPA air filter in his bedroom
4) Taking supplements to support histamine breakdown and to sooth his gut
5) Sleep hygiene, especially focusing on nose breathing (check out our podcast on Breathing), and some gargling to retrain his parasympathetic nervous system
A month later, he came back to say that although initially he didn't notice much happening, in the past week he's been able to fall asleep within 30 minutes and sleep solidly through the night. Energy's much better during the daytime, and he's able to stop taking his anti-histamine without any flare ups. His anxiety has greatly subsided and he's no longer experiencing any jitteriness, palpitation or diarrhoea.
Although not everyone's insomnia and anxiety are related to histamine, it is often an overlooked part of the clinical picture. Speak to your practitioner to see if this may apply to you.