Fermented foods: could they be making you sick?

Fermented foods: could they be making you sick?

Fermented foods: could they be making you sick?

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No longer a food found only in German beer halls, fermented foods like sauerkraut have moved out from the fringe and are enjoying their moment in the limelight as full blown super foods.  Every hipster, paleo advocate and wellbeing junky is fermenting their own food or adding them to their diet.

But what if fermented foods are making you sick?

Fermented foods are made by allowing bacteria to feed on vegetables such as cabbage or milk products, which gives them a slightly tangy acidic taste. While there’s no doubt that the addition of fermented foods can be very beneficial for adding helpful bacteria into your digestive system, for some people, fermented foods can cause all sorts of problems.

If you experience any of these signs and symptoms after eating fermented foods, then it might mean that you are one of the people that reacts to them.

Signs that fermented foods are making you sick:

  • Bloating, gas, diarrhoea, cramps
  • Flushed skin especially the face
  • Itchy skin or hives
  • Racing heart or palpitations
  • Blocked nose or sinuses
  • Feelings of anxiety or panic
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Sleep problems
  • Vertigo or dizziness


Why fermented foods can make you sick

Fermented foods are very high in the chemical histamine, the same one that’s associated with allergies to substances like dust or grasses. Some foods trigger the cells of your body to release histamine, for example nuts, chocolate and shellfish. Others, including fermented foods, are naturally high in histamine.

If you have an intolerance to histamine, eating foods which contain it can cause the problems listed above and because the histamine is coming from your diet, rather than your own body cells, taking anti-histamine tablets won’t help.

What causes histamine intolerance?

There are several common reasons why you might be intolerant to histamine. These include:

  • Allergies
  • Leaky gut
  • SIBO (small intestinal bacteria overgrowth)
  • Diamine oxidase deficiency (the enzyme which breaks down histamine)

SIBO and histamine intolerance

Your digestive system is full of bacteria, most of which have become symbiotic with your own body processes and you simply couldn’t live without. These we call “probiotics” or “ for life”. Others aren’t so helpful and need to be kept in check. An increasingly common problem is a condition called SIBO. This occurs when too many or the wrong sort of bacteria populate the normally sterile part of your small intestine. The types of bacteria that cause SIBO are often histamine-producing, which of course means that they add more histamine to your digestive system, in a part where it wouldn’t normally be produced. This alone can cause a range of symptoms, but it’s when histamine-rich food are consumed that the real problems arise. If you have this condition and you eat histamine rich food like fermented vegetables or kefir, your body’s ability to clear the chemical is overwhelmed and you might experience anything from bloating to panic attacks.

How to treat histamine intolerance

The treatment will depend on the cause. If you have been experiencing these symptoms your whole life, then it is more likely to be a genetic deficiency in the enzyme which breaks down histamine, meaning that your body can’t get rid of the chemical before it reaches a level which causes problems.  If your sensitivity has developed over the years, it’s much more likely to be caused by an imbalance in your gut bacteria or problems with the integrity of your gut wall like leaky gut.

Avoiding histamine-rich foods is the first step to treating the symptoms while the underlying cause is addressed.

Histamine-rich foods

  • Fermented foods such sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, yoghurt, vinegar
  • Fermented alcohols such as beer, wine and champagne
  • Vinegar
  • Aged cheese or cheese with moulds
  • Smoked fish
  • Aged meats

The list of histamine-rich food is very long (and contains more then the foods listed above) but these are the most common foods people react to. It’s also important to note that a very common strain of bacteria used in probiotic supplements, and which is in most fermented foods, is a histamine-producing strain. If you think that you might have a histamine intolerance, then you should avoid any product which contains Lactobacillus casei, L. reuteri or L. bulgaricus.


It’s very true that food should be your medicine but the flipside is that it can also be your poison. Just because a food is trendy, doesn’t make it healthy or suitable for you. If you think that you might be suffering from a histamine intolerance, I urge you to seek the advice of a good naturopath with experience in working with the problem.





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