Mast cells, histamine, inflammation and obesity
My “before” lifestyle changes pictureCitations always at bottom of post
Mast cells are key players in immune system generated inflammation. You know, the stuff that heals you when you’re sick, but makes you sick if inflammation happens when you’re not. Mast cell activation (as it’s called) is also involved in allergic reactions of the lungs and nasal passages, gut and skin, like as in asthma, hay fever, eczema and food allergies, but also in pretty scary things like cancers, IBS, kidney damage and heart disease. And now, obesity and diabetes. Mast cells release histamine and many other inflammatory molecules as needed for healing.
Research over the last few years points to mast cell related inflammation contributing to obesity. Mast cells are thought to “participate” in these conditions by affecting the rate at which we burn calories and other really painfully complicated ways. A study published in Inflammation Research: Official journal of the European Histamine Research Society tells us that fat is one of the main sources of inflammatory mediators, with Interleukin-6, released by mast cells, directly linked to obesity. Interleukin-6 testing is one of a number of tests used to diagnose mast cell activation and inflammation generally.Here’s my post on tests required for histamine intolerance and mast cell activation.
A study published in Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews finds that mast cell stabilising medications like sodium cromolyn and ketitofen reduce (pre-established) obesity and diabetes in an animal study. What’s unclear is whether this applies, firstly to humans at all, and secondly to folks who are overweight and suffer from diabetes generally, or those who have mast cell activation and these conditions are the result of it.
I’ve personally found that not ingesting inflammatory foods at all (nearly impossible) kept me incredibly skinny. At times this was because I ate almost nothing (did I mention it’s nearly impossible to eat no inflammatory foods?) but at others it seemed I could eat whatever I wanted and still stay rake thin.
The latter phenomenon (which people write to me about all the time) may be due to histamine affecting metabolism and appetite. The crazy thing is how it can swing from one extreme to another. I spent years scoffing at pseudo medical conditions claiming weight loss or gain, low energy or high energy (I do please ask readers not to point out the work of Carl Pfeiffer – I am well aware of it), and yet there I was, eventually suffering from a medically validated condition whose seesawing symptoms make it nearly impossible to diagnose.
Other factors in inflammation and weight gain are that stimulation of the H1 receptors in the brain causes a decrease in appetite, one that study authors dubbed “adaptive anorexia”. I’ve certainly experienced that. This may be why I suffered my most massive weight gain when taking antihistamines like Claritin and Zyrtec that block the H1 receptor.
A brain “histamine high” is what I called it when my brain burned warm like the sun was beating down on it and I would run around cleaning my house from top to bottom, rearrange the furniture and paint every other door a fetching powder blue. Doctors called it bipolar disorder and gave me antipsychotics to sleep, mood stabilisers to stop the midnight painting, and antidepressants to even out the inevitable crash. “What goes up must come down,” I was once told. Sadly those meds set off even more mania which thankfully resolved, along with the depression, once I changed my diet.
It’s all so confusing because we have opposing factors at work here. Histamine can both cause weight gain or loss, appetite loss or increase, and impact our metabolism. Histamine is found both in foods and mast cells. Mast cell related inflammation generally seems to be implicated in weight gain.
Please don’t forget, this is all mostly in animal studies.
Brain histamine release is linked to learning, fear aversion (associating certain behaviours, places or foods with pain/sickness for example) and just generally keeping us in a high state of alert in case we need to get moving quickly (this is an oversimplification). The “Danger Hypothesis” (Brown et al.), proposes that brain histamine is released during feeding, perhaps in a dangerous environment, or having to hunt for food, or because the animal has to eat and run, or run the risk of being eaten themselves.
An animal study published in the Journal of Pharmacology tells us brain histamine is released when the animal is trying to work out how to access food that has been placed in a closed container, or by learning that pressing a lever gets them a meal. But when the animal was given free access to food, there was no brain histamine release.
It’s really tempting to draw some conclusions here, but rather than engage in completely unscientific speculation, I will share my experience as a patient. Eating while stressed or stressing about eating causes more of an inflammatory/histamine response than being totally chill about the whole thing. When you factor in that just thinking about food is enough to release histamine (which is needed for digestion), it seems like a good idea not to engage in extreme restriction, eating a diet that makes you stressed and unhappy, or living a life that does the same.
That’s no easy task when you’ve felt your throat close up on you thanks to a seemingly harmless carrot, or ended up in the ER after enjoying a glass of red wine. Of course, being sick makes anyone depressed. It’s a daily fight to live beyond sickness and make our peace with wherever we happen to find ourselves.
I believe in eating a lightly restricted diet that rules out unhealthy higher histamine foods while keeping things like avocado, tomato and natural soy (edamame beans for example) on a long rotation. My diet is primarily anti-inflammatory (as you will find in my newer books The Anti-Cookbook, the all liquid Anti-Detox and Man Food) and made up of as many foods with antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties that I can squeeze in.
Inflammation is very obvious to me when overweight, I feel bloated and burn hot, so I do an hour and a half of high intensity yoga daily as well as walk uphill whenever I have the opportunity to beat it. I also now sometimes use a calorie tracker to check in once in a while – I’m always surprised to see I eat more than I think. Denial does trip me up at times.
Retraining my brain to prevent overeating in times of unhappiness has really helped, cognitive hypnotherapy and other methods I’ll share tasters of in my upcoming Healing the Brain to Heal the Body two hour online workshop on June 11th – book your spot here. Don’t worry if you can’t make it live, there’ll be a recording of the workshop available to you for viewing as many times as you like, as often as you like.