Are Food Amines Causing your Migraines?
Updated: Jul 24
Are amines in chocolate and/or red wine (histamines) potentially causing you headaches or migraines ? Certainly many people make this connection or are suspicious about a possible link, and given the nature of these foods, would hope it is not the case!
What are Amines?
Amines are a group of chemicals naturally present in some foods and derived from the break down of proteins. Amines is a word that is often used interchangeably with histamines (see post).
Foods such as meat do not contain amines when fresh but when aged the proteins break down to release amines. Over browning of the meat can also result in the formation of amines.
Fermentation of foods are also known to produce amines through breakdown of the protein. Any foods undergoing fermentation such as kombucha contains amines.
Foods contain many different types of amines, and experience shows that if you are amine sensitive then you may react to one type of amine but be fine with another type.
Many people have heard of the amine: histamine that is found in many foods.
Other well known amines are serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline which along with histamine are best known for their role in causing symptoms.
Lesser well known food amines are tyramine, tryptamine, and phenylethylamine.
Amines are found often together, although some amines may be more dominant such as phenylethylamine in chocolate.
Are amines bad for you?
The amines present in foods do not provide a health issue for most people unless in very high concentration (for example 'scombroid' poisoning in fish).
For amine sensitive people, amounts found in foods that are normally tolerated for others can cause issues.
Amines are sometimes called biogenic amines and their impact on the body is due to the fact that they are biologically active in the body. They can be absorbed across the gut wall and enter the body where they can play active roles in the body's chemical processes.
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 cause problems such as depression and anxiety.
Local symptoms can also occur in the gut including nausea, diarrhoea, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as well as triggering symptoms elsewhere in the body, such as headaches, migraines, asthma, and hives.
As in all areas of food chemical intolerance, evidence is sparse but there is some limited low level evidence (case series) for amines causing migraines. Personal experience of food chemical sensitive people also suggests that other naturally occurring food chemicals such as salicylates, glutamates and food additives can also trigger headaches and migraines.
There is also some (limited) evidence for a low amine diet in resolution of urticaria (hives) and eczema. Although we do not know why this happens, it may involve a reduction in an enzyme called amine oxidases (monoamine oxidases (MAO) and diamine oxidases (DAO).
An increased sensitivity to biogenic amines has been proposed to be due to a weakened enzymatic amine breakdown caused by genetic predisposition or maybe gastrointestinal diseases which slows down breakdown of the amines.
Which Foods Contain Amines?
The amount of amines in food can really vary so it can be hard to determine how much is typically in any one food.
Amine variation in foods is due to how much is present initially, how the food is prepared, cooked (for example how long meat is browned), if fermentation takes place, level of acidity in the food/meal and storage pre and post cooking.
The Royal Price Alfred Hospital allergy unit have 2 handbooks (RPAH Elimination Diet Handbook) which lists foods low, moderate, high and very high in amines, and goes through the elimination, challenge and re-introduction process. This handbook online from the Royal Prince Alfred Allergy unit.
The following gives a basic account foods shown to be high in amines.
There are a few fruits containing significant amounts of amines such as ripe bananas, grapes, tomato, many berries, citrus fruit, plums, passionfruit and pineapple.
High amine veggies include avocado, broccoli, rocket, eggplant, mushrooms, olives and spinach.
Chocolate is very high in amines as well as cheese, and some meats such as pork, the skin on chicken and many deli meats and other processed meats such as sausages and tinned fish.
Then there are the nuts and seeds- all are high in amines and salicylates with the exception of cashews (especially when raw) and poppy seeds.
Many of these foods contain many different amines. For example, up to 20 different amines have been discovered in wine, with greater concentrations in red wine. The amount and type depends on a number of different factors such as the vintage, grape variety, geographical region, and vinification methods such as grape skin maceration.
Amines can develop in meats in a relatively short period of time. Choosing meat that is fresh is a great start, and how meat is stored, browned or cooked and how long it is frozen all contribute to development of amines.
Meat does not need to be avoided at all, just a review of the meat management is important when reducing amines in the diet. This becomes even more crucial when it comes to fish and seafood.
Amines as a result of fermentation may be significant if you choose wine, beer, soy sauce, probiotics and fermented foods such as kombucha and kefir.
Many amine rich foods also contain salicylates and glutamates which have been found to cause issues in sensitive people.
Amine Sensitivity Diagnosis
The diagnosis of sensitivity to the food amines is usually made through a thorough history and dietary exclusion of the different amines found in foods. Salicylates as well as glutamates and some food additives usually are also be excluded, if doing the full Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPAH) elimination diet, as it can be hard to know if issues are being caused by amines or by salicylates.
If symptoms can be improved then this is followed by a challenge process to identify if it is amines or salicylates or glutamates or food additives or a combination triggering the migraines. This is followed by an expansion of the diet to include the foods found to be non triggers, and slow reintroduction of the trigger foods as tolerated.
If you think your headaches or migraines may be related to what you eat then food amines are worth considering. If there is a connection, elimination should result in an improvement in your symptoms and structured challenges help identify what are your exact triggers.
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