Are Amines the same as Histamines?
Updated: Feb 27
If you are sensitive to foods such as pork, slow cooked meats, peanut taste, tomato based meals, fermented foods such as kombucha, many alcohols, and some cheeses, you may be reacting to the amines in these foods- or is it the histamines?
Even if you have worked which foods are triggering your symptoms, it can be really confusing when you come across different terms that may explain your sensitivity. Is it amine sensitivity, histamine sensitivity, mast cell disorder- or are they somehow all related?
Finding information in this area is a minefield. Read on to see how these terms may have a potential connection.
Does it matter: Amine versus Histamine Intolerance?
What really matters is knowing your food triggers. What it is called should not matter, but hearing these different terms can be quite confusing.
Knowing what a sensitivity is called makes it easier to sift through the internet looking for helpful information. Having a term to reference does, in this context, become quite important.
Let's look at how 'amines' and 'histamines' relate to each other, and also where they are different.
Note- this is an evolving area, so this blog will be updated as more information comes to light.
What are Amines?
It is always useful to start with a good old word definition (remember those English essays?).
According to Britannica online, amines are defined as:
" any member of a family of nitrogen-containing organic compounds that is derived, either in principle or in practice, from ammonia. "
While that explanation feels very unsatisfactory (unless you have a degree in chemistry), the upshot is that amines are a group of chemicals based on the structure of ammonia.
Interesting (maybe)- but not helpful yet!
More useful, is knowing that there are different types of amines, which occur naturally in the body as well as being present in foods, especially foods rich in protein.
These proteins can break down to amines and unfortunately some people are known to react to these amines with a range of symptoms, from face flushing and urticaria (hives), to mood issues such as anxiety, to issues such as irritable bowel type of symptoms.
What are Histamines?
Again, looking at well respected definitions, Britannica online defines histamines as the following:
" Histamine is chemically classified as an amine, an organic molecule based on the structure of ammonia (NH3). It is formed by the decarboxylation (the removal of a carboxyl group) of the amino acid histidine."
Did you spot the relationship with amines? Yes- histamines are a type of AMINE!
Histamines are a type of Amine found in Foods
I like to think of this in terms of vacuum cleaners. In Australia we call 'vacuuming our house' just that- 'vacuuming our house'!
In England- they call it 'hoovering'. They 'hoover' their houses. Since 1908, the British associated the word 'vacuum cleaner" with 'Hoover' named after William Hoover, thanks to an American inventor, James Spangler. The Hoover was the first practical domestic vacuum cleaner available for the general public, and became a must have for many households (1).
Over time- the name of one of the most well known vacuum cleaners entered the British lexicon as a verb- ' hoovering' the house.
Using the same logic, this applies to amines and histamines.
Technically, amines refer to a GROUP of different chemical structures based on the structure of ammonia. These amines can be in the environment (thick of chloramines in swimming pools that are chlorinated) or in some medications (think of melatonin or probiotics) and also in foods.
Most foods containing amines will contain a combination of different amines.
The main amines found in foods are (based on the number of amino acids in their structure), according to the CSIRO (2):
Heterocyclic amines: histamine and tryptamine
Aromatic amines: tyramine and phenylethylamine
Diamines: putrescine and cadaverine
Polyamines: spermine and spermidine
So Histamines are one of the many different amines we find naturally occurring in different foods. In truth- amine foods tend to be a combination of these amines.
Back to the exciting 'hoovering' story- just like 'Hoovers' are a brand of vacuum cleaner that refers to all vacuums or the art of vacuuming (in Britain), in the same way HISTAMINES has been used to mean all the different AMINES you find in food.
While it does not really matter, use of the word 'histamine' instead of 'amine' does tend to create confusion.
But that is not all folks, there is more to the amine/histamine story.....
Histamine is also produced in the body for many natural processes.
Histamines are not only one of the amines that occur naturally in food but has a number of other important jobs.
Histamine function: histamine is released when you have an allergy or food intolerance reaction
When you have an allergy reaction, a message is sent to your mast cells which says 'release histamine'. Histamine is part of your body's defence mechanism that can often develop symptoms designed to purge you of the trigger-for example, by vomiting it up, sneezing it out or expelling it quickly via diarrhoea.
Mast cells exist in every part of your body: your skin, gut, blood, nose, lungs etc. The mast cells releasing histamine results in inflammation which allows your body to get on with the other processes designed to protect you from the allergen. Of course we know, this is a case of mistaken identity, as allergens in food such as dairy protein is meant to be harmless.
Not only does this process of histamine being released from mast cells with allergies occur, but histamine is also released from mast cells with food intolerances, where a normal food such as an amine rich food may result in release of histamine from mast cells, which causes a further cascade of chemical reactions and ultimately, some unpleasant symptoms that can appear very 'allergy like'.
That is why taking ANTI-HISTAMINES is useful- to neutralise or cancel out the effect of the histamine released in the body.
The problem here, is that many 'histamine lists' include 'histamine releasers' which is not overly helpful as this could be applied to any food that causes a reaction in the body as all reactions result in the release of histamine.
Can some foods be 'Histamine Releasers'?
No! Despite many allegations that some foods will naturally result in extra release of histamine (such as strawberries, pork, tomatoes, alcohol, eggs, chocolate), there is no actual evidence this is the case. While you can have food intolerances to these foods, for example the salicylates in strawberries or amines in chocolate or even an allergy reaction, these foods are not capable inherently of causing histamine to be released (3).
Histamine exists naturally in our bodies
Histamine is also produced in the body and has other functions; for example in the brain, histamine functions as a neurotransmitter, and it is involved in the sense of appetite, the state of wakefulness/sleepiness, and memory (4).
These are normal processes , and while they may be exacerbated (potentially), by a histamine/amine reaction, they are essential for normal bodily processes.
Amines and Histamines: summary
In summary: amine sensitivity is a reaction to the amines we find in some foods, one of the amines is histamine. Histamine is a confusing term as histamine is also a chemical that is produced in our bodies for the regulation of many normal processes. Histamine is also released when we have an allergy or food intolerance symptom.
The multiple roles histamine can be very confusing when we are talking about amine sensitivity and when interpreting 'histamine' food lists.
It can be quite useful (and technically correct) to think of amine sensitivity in this way: amines in foods (and the environment) cause mast cells in your body to release histamine. This results in the symptoms you experience such as hives, rashes, poor sleep, 'brain fog' and gut symptoms.
Amines in Foods
There are a severe lack of dependable charts which clearly show the different amines in the different foods. In truth, most foods are a combination of different amines.
People who are amine sensitive may have more sensitivity to some amines found in foods that other ones.
In the absence of dependable food charts, general amine charts are more useful. I tend to use the Royal Prince Alfred (RPAH) Elimination Diet food charts for a number of reasons:
There have been used by many amine sufferers for decades (in fact were originally set up in the 1970's due to amine issues causing urticaria/hives) so have had a lot of credibility due to the volume of people it has helped in this area
Where there is an amine sensitivity, there is often a glutamate sensitivity, a fact overlooked by many 'histamine lists'
Where there is an amine sensitivity, there maybe a salicylate sensitivity, a fact overlooked by many 'histamine lists'
Some 'histamine' lists include 'histamine liberators' which is not very helpful as foods causing a reaction will result in histamine being released or liberated from the mast cells
Some of the more useful histamine lists align very well the RPAH amine list
The RPAH elimination charts are best implemented with a Dietitian, as amine sensitivity can often be seen with other dietary issues such as salicylates, glutamates and whole foods such as dairy or wheat . Doing this on your own is needlessly hard, and usually the diet will end up being unsustainable and nutritionally inadequate, which can make food sensitivities worse.
In addition, following the charts is not enough when reducing amines, knowledge around handling of foods to prevent developing of amines, especially around meat, is absolutely crucial when reducing significant levels of amines (or histamines) in your diet. Additional specialised knowledge its needed for better implementation.
Now you know all there is to know about histamine vs amines
Now you know the difference between the words 'histamine" and 'amine' and how they relate to each other, you are in a better place to understand your own food intolerances, and how to interpret information you may come across on the internet.
If you are interested in the amine charts in information provided by the RPAH allergy unit: link into: https://www.slhd.nsw.gov.au/rpa/allergy/resources/foodintol/ff-handbooks.html
These lists will give you a well documented and usable lists of foods containing amines (denoted with an A) and work in with a dietitian specialising in food intolerances to help apply this to your diet, to see if you can better manage for food symptoms.
As a general summary, the following foods tend to be high in amines:
fermented foods such as kombucha
high amine meats: game meats, offal, pork, tinned fish especially tinned tuna
slow cooked meats
over browned meats
slow cooked meats
some vegetables such as spinach
some fruit such as over ripe bananas (just ripe bananas are lower in amines)
ripened cheeses such as tasty cheese, camembert
many nuts, but the best example being peanut paste
extra virgin olive oil
meals rich in tomato/tomato paste/tomato puree
If you feel you react to amines- you have taken a major step forward in defining your individual food issues.
Make it faster and sustainable with expert help.
(1) The invention of the vacuum cleaner, from horse-drawn to high tech (no date) Science Museum. Available at: https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/everyday-wonders/invention-vacuum-cleaner (Accessed: January 30, 2023).
(2) Biogenic amines in meat meal - meatupdate.csiro.au (no date). Available at: https://meatupdate.csiro.au/infosheets/Biogenic%20Amines%20in%20Meat%20Meal.pdf (Accessed: January 30, 2023).
(3) Vlieg-Boerstra BJ, van der Heide S, Oude Elberink JN, Kluin-Nelemans JC, Dubois AE. Mastocytosis and adverse reactions to biogenic amines and histamine-releasing foods: what is the evidence? Neth J Med. 2005 Jul-Aug;63(7):244-9. PMID: 16093574.
(4) Givanoudi S, Heyndrickx M, Depuydt T, Khorshid M, Robbens J, Wagner P. A Review on Bio- and Chemosensors for the Detection of Biogenic Amines in Food Safety Applications: The Status in 2022. Sensors (Basel). 2023 Jan 5;23(2):613. doi: 10.3390/s23020613. PMID: 36679407; PMCID: PMC9860941.