This week’s show is with Yasmina Ykelenstam, who once worked as a journalist for CNN and BBC, diving right into combat zones and even getting shot at in a helicopter.
But today we’re talking about the other thing that almost killed her – her diet.
On this show with The Low Histamine Chef, you’ll learn:
- Why dogmatic paleo, autoimmune, and GAPS diets can be totally wrong
- How to identify your problem foods
- How acne, dry skin, and other skin conditions might actually be coming from your diet
- Why certain “healthy” foods might be making you fat and sick (and what to do about it)
Who Is The Low Histamine Chef?
Yasmina is a former CNN/BBC journalist and luxury brand marketing professional turned nutrition/wellness blogger and cookbook author after using a high-nutrient, gluten-free, histamine-balanced “flexitarian” diet to heal a chronic inflammatory condition.
After 9/11, she was pulled into the general news division at CNN, where she worked with Wolf Blitzer, John Snow, Christiane Amanpour, Richard Quest, and Hala Gorani. She was part of a team that received the Edward R. Murrow Award for coverage of the 2006 Lebanon War with Israel. After CNN, she did field reporting from Baghdad for Fox New and the BBC.
Then, when she stopped being a journalist in the thick of the battle, something strange happened to her body…
Yasmina’s History with Inflammation, Histamines & Health Food
So glad you’re here. We get a lot of questions about how people can hack their diets into the perfect thing for them—a lot of people start with paleo or gaps come to you to try to dig a little deeper into what’s right for them. What’s your story?
Like many people, I hadn’t felt great for most of my life. Symptoms would wax and wane, like bloating and IBS. As a child, my mom took me to all the top specialists all over the world—but all the test came up negative. In my 30’s I decided to buckle down and get really healthy—until then I’d never met a vegetable I really liked. As a journalist, I was working in war zones for CNN and BBC, so I decided I needed to get it together.
I started eating healthier things like:
- Organic Soy and Tofu
- Fermented food
…and I got really insanely sick! I developed anxiety symptoms. I was diagnosed bipolar and given tons of medication. Then, I drank a nasty fermented drink called Rejuvelac. I thought, “Are they trying to punish us?”
I was completely wired and sick and broke out in hives. I went home and googled my symptoms. I’d been tracking my diet for years—many of us do because we haven’t been feeling so great—and I discovered something.
I discovered histamine intolerance.
What happened to you?
When I moved to San Francisco, I was on a modeling contract and I started eating shell fish at this incredible restaurant every day, and I broke out in hives all over my body and went into anaphylactic shock—you can have really mild anaphylactic shock and not really know about it. My symptoms spiraled out of control. I started scrubbing myself using loofah and salt because that was the only thing I could tolerate on my skin. I used NO shampoo thing for a year. I lived in a bubble.
It was problematic– I wasn’t able to wear makeup. I was down to five foods that I could safely eat. And I couldn’t understand why healthy food wasn’t working for me.
Symptoms of Histamine Intolerance
What do you recommend people do if they might be suffering from this?
Take a look at your symptoms. Often times, histamine intolerance is misdiagnosed as other things. If you have any of the following symptoms or diagnoses, you might want to dig deeper:
- Extreme fatigue
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Acne that’s not actually acne (doesn’t respond to prescription medication)
- Severe mood swings – might actually be masto rage
All of these could be related to histamine.
Ideally, you should get a diagnosis, which is almost impossible in most countries. These issues can mimic a lot of conditions. When I went in to see a specialist, I came in with a huge binder of information and we literally ruled out every other diagnosis.
There are several degrees of histamine intolerance, such as Mastocytosis, Systemic Mastocytosis, then there’s plain histamine intolerance, which is literally because of stress or lack of HMNT enzymes (which has been linked to ADhD). If you can get a diagnosis, great.
What Is The Low Histamine Diet?
The diet that I am on, it’s not a diet I created, it’s an anti-inflammatory diet that I took to the next level by adding in a bunch of antihistamine foods—rich in bioflavonoids– and made an eating plan out of it. It’s just really healthy. Even if this isn’t what you’re dealing with, eliminating the non-foods from your diet will help you be healthier.
Once you remove all the non-foods and focus on the healing anti-inflammatory foods, you’re going to heal yourself.
What does your plate look like?
People with histamine issues are highly sensitive people—you might be reacting to oxalates or fructose… “So, don’t have too much of any one thing.”
For example, I discovered that beans would make me really tired, and apple cider vinegar would make me hyper. In order to discover how different foods affect your body, follow these steps:
Make a Food Diary of:
- Things that you are tolerating that are high nutrient
- Things that you aren’t tolerating
- And things you want to bring back into the diet
Once you have that list, you make another list with all of your symptoms. Make a spreadsheet—and then add the foods that are causing these symptoms.
Then, what you can start to do is carefully combine foods on your plate. Put foods that bind you with foods that loosen the bowels, for example… Everyone’s diet is going to look different.
A Low Histamine Daily Menu
BREAKFAST Smoothie: 1 to 2 parts vegetable (broccoli stem or cucumber), anti-histamine fruit like Mango, Vitamin K rich anti-inflammatory grains, or nuts that have been soaked
LUNCH: a huge salad with a little bit of protein—(I’m basically paleo, but I do eat beans at the moment)
DINNER: soup, another salad, protein, vegetables
As I said, everyone’s menu will look a little bit different.
Food is your medicine and your downfall—how do you go about finding which is which?
There is no easy way to figure it out, because with histamine reactions you can have a very delayed reaction that develops in 48 hours or not before 48 hours. But if you make that list with different symptoms and the foods that are potentially causing them, you eventually see the same foods appear over and over again in different columns and you whittle it down.
If you focus too deeply inwards on your reactions, and you‘re looking for those reactions, you will get what you’re looking for. So, if you’re eating like a spoon of vinegar and you’re doing this narrative in your head, like you’re working yourself up over it—that whirlwind is really counterproductive and it can induce reaction with hyper-activation and stress response.
A lot of work I’ve done on myself has involved meditation and yoga for that reason.
How Meditation Helps Heal Histamine Intolerance
For the longest time, I couldn’t eat strawberries. After years of being on this healthy diet, I did a meditation. I ate a bowl of strawberries. Went into meditation and did a brain training… I had been eating a really healthy diet for years.
The act of retraining my brain through meditation allowed me to introduce strawberries back into my diet.
“My body had healed but my brain hadn’t caught up yet.”
Why did you get so sick?
I read a book called “The Last Best Cure” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. She talks about a questionnaire created by Kaiser and it scores you based on how much trauma you’ve had, and how likely you are to develop an immune system disorder.
I didn’t think I’d had a lot of trauma— but then I read the questions, and they were like, “Did you hear your parents arguing before the age of 11?” “Did you move more than so many times by the age of 15?”
I had grown up during a war. We moved from hotel to hotel when I was young.
As a journalist, I went to war covering conflict. I covered the Saddam Hussein trial, I went to nuclear processing facilities in Libya… I’ve been shot at in helicopters… and it takes its toll on your nervous system.
Mast cells—there’s histamine in your body in mast cells. Inflammation is the good guy, but if you have too much it’s bad. When mast cells become unstable, they splurge their inflammation into the body and wreak havoc, and one of the biggest triggers is stress.
I went to war for years and my body just imploded. I tried to convince myself that I was tough, on an important mission, and convinced myself of that.
When I left journalism everything sank in, and I was no longer living on adrenaline, and the adrenaline pushes back histamine. When I crashed, I crashed big time.
What has meditation done to your mindset, your body, to change your life?
I was in Kenya and I went into anaphylactic shock—I had no medication, no hospitals, I thought I was going to die. I collapsed on the floor, my vision blurred, but luckily someone found me. They reminded me that I had been practicing meditation. I was winding myself up during the shock, intensifying the histamine reaction.
I managed to get through it with meditation alone.
Then I managed to help someone else get through it with visualization— she had hives and was turning red. We had called the emergency, and I was holding her hands and guiding her through a visualization. Suddenly, like in a movie, normal color skin started appearing again, and all the hives were going.
We had a very well respected mass cell specialist there and he was shocked, and he is now planning to do some research on the effects of visualization on histamine reactions.
Meditation switches off the genes related to inflammation— it will have an effect on a number of illnesses including chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, et cetera. It’s been so life changing that I can’t even begin to put into words the good that it has done for me health wise and also as a human
- My interpersonal relationships have changed.
- Stress levels have gone to zero.
- I am able to eat.
There’s a Chinese proverb: A crumb eaten in peace is worth more than a feast eaten in anger.
That’s it—you practice that also—the mindful eating is the most important thing we can do. When I realized this is when I went on a meditation retreat to learn how to be a meditation teacher—I ate everything I wanted and we were practicing mindful eating—it clicked, that’s the answer.
Primer on Mindful Eating:
Honestly, I suggest people look up Jon Kabat-Zinn on the internet or iTunes and get an idea of meditation first.
You need to understand posture first—I wasn’t really taking the air up and allowing it to circulate through my body. Simple things like that, Zinn will help you with—he’s the granddaddy of meditation.
“I recommend trying to find your center. Trying to find a point of stillness within the whirlwind we’re experiencing on a daily basis.”
It’s okay to think of things during meditation—it’s not realistic to think you can completely clear your mind. Just breathe deeply, and try and not focus on what you’re eating—the experience of eating, but not actually what you’re eating.
I encourage you to experience the smells of the food as an introduction to what is coming. If the smells aren’t hurting you, why would the food hurt you? (People with chemical syndrome, they trigger to smells, trying to warn us not to touch whatever that smell is coming from.)
In other countries, you waft the smells and lean over the food to prepare to eat. This is so important.
How does culture play into a healthy relationship with food?
My mom is Lebanese and we couldn’t’ work it out, every time we came to Lebanon all of my digestive issues would disappear. It was likely the fact that at least back then, the Lebanese lived off the land. There’s really no reliance on packaged food—Beirut is such a small place, that whatever you have in the shop is going to be sold that day because you only make as much as you need.
Each meal begins with a bowl of vegetables—whole radishes, carrots, cucumbers. (This is the idea of pre-feeding with fiber to help your gut flora.) You’re served a plate of fresh thyme with olive oil—you dip the bread into it—lots of herbs go into the salad.
At each meal you have Lebanese mezza—tiny dishes of mostly vegetarian food and you get thirty or forty during a meal. It’s a great concept—the idea of not having too much of one thing. All of these amazing phytonutrients work together to create their synergistic magic.
THEN skewers of meat, lamb and so forth. Apart from pickles there’s really not fermented foods—Many Middle Eastern people have digestive problems when they leave their country, and I suspect this is why.
What Are The Negative Side Effects of Fermented Foods?
In a way, fermented foods can be great for people with histamine disorders, in a way… some fermented foods have been shown to have anti-inflammatory benefits— but there’ 4 histamine receptors in the body, so just because it doesn’t trigger one receptor doesn’t mean it’s not activating another.
Bacteria comes into the body and the body’s like “whoa, intruder” so the body is releasing histamine to deal with it. “I always tell people, nothing is off the menu forever.”
If you’ve got to have that taco bell fix, and you can’t live without it, then go ahead.
“There will come a time when the histamine bucket is empty and you can start to refill it.”
Once your histamine bucket is empty, if you would like to go with ferments again and see how you do with them, go ahead. You might just have to balance the other foods.
It’s a balancing act. I’m still very much dealing with the memories of the seizures and other symptoms—I was a really severe case. I don’t really eat a restricted diet nowadays—but maybe it’s just that I don’t view it as restricted.
Everyone has their view of grain or no grain—I personally don’t think grains are healthy.
I often feel very grateful that I had these reactions and listened to the message my body was sending me, rather than allowing it to culminate into something worse.
“I feel like I caught something in time, because I was listening.”
Food has become medicine, and an enjoyable part of life. I have nigella seed oil, and I put it on my salad. It’s as potent as steroids.
If you convince yourself it’s gonna work, it’s gonna work. The mind is a very powerful ally.
Where to Find Yasmina
You can check out Yasmina’s cookbooks and more over at TheLowHistamineChef.com, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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