Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) is a condition in which immune cells called mast cells are excessively active, releasing large amounts of chemicals like histamine. The release of these chemicals can trigger a vast array of symptoms in diverse parts of the body.
Mast cell stabilizers interact with mast cells, preventing them from releasing inflammatory chemicals. While pharmaceutical mast cell stabilizers are available, they come with a number of side effects. Natural mast cell stabilizers, on the other hand, can calm down mast cell activity, reduce symptoms, and help you feel better with a very low risk of side effects.
Read on to learn about my top seven favorite natural mast cell stabilizers and how to weave them into your routine!
Please note that I am an affiliate for some of the products that I’ve linked to in this post. If you click the link here and make a purchase, I may earn a commission at no extra cost to you.
Table of Contents
What are Mast Cells?
Before we talk about my top ten favorite natural mast cell stabilizers, let’s briefly cover what mast cells are and their purpose in the body.
Mast cells are a type of white blood cell and, thus, a part of the immune system. They are found in connective tissues throughout the body, near the skin, in the gut, and alongside neurons. (1) Mast cells regulate various processes, including vasodilation (dilation of blood vessels), defending against bacteria and fungal organisms, allergic responses, and chronic inflammation. (2, 3) Mast cells release a variety of meditators to exert these diverse effects, including histamine, proteases, heparin, and inflammatory cytokines.
While mast cells directly secrete inflammatory substances, they may also perpetuate inflammation by activating downstream immune system processes. (4) Therefore, MCAS may not be just about mast cell activity but is likely the result of multiple inflammatory immune processes inside the body.
In some people, mast cells can become hyperactive, releasing mediators in excess and causing a heightened inflammatory response. Eventually, hyperactive mast cells may become mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), a condition in which mast cells release an inappropriate amount of chemicals into the body, causing symptoms such as hives, headaches, and gastrointestinal distress.
Address the Underlying Causes of MCAS
While natural mast cell stabilizers can be extraordinarily helpful, simply trying to stabilize mast cells with natural mast cell stabilizers without addressing the underlying causes of MCAS will be an uphill and ultimately futile battle.
Therefore, working with a functional healthcare provider is crucial to determine what underlying factors are driving your MCAS. As you resolve underlying imbalances, the mast cell activity in your body will likely naturally calm down. While you’re going through the process of identifying and treating underlying imbalances, natural mast cell stabilizers can help reduce inflammation, decrease symptoms, and improve your quality of life.
Underlying causes of MCAS include eating foods that are inflammatory to your body, gut problems such as dysbiosis and leaky gut, chronic infections, toxic exposures, and chronic stress. Addressing these factors while you take natural mast cell stabilizers will yield the best results.
Choose the Right Diet for Your Body
The foods you eat significantly impact your body’s mast cell activity. There’s no one-size-fits-all dietary approach for stabilizing mast cells, though a handful of dietary best practices can calm your mast cells.
A whole-food, nutrient-dense diet is a great place to start. If you’re sensitive to high-histamine foods or other food components, such as oxalates, minimizing your intake of these food triggers for a period of time can quench hyperactive mast cells and help lower inflammation inside your body. Food allergies and IgG food sensitivities can also activate mast cells, so it is critical to identify these. (5, 6)
If you’re struggling with MCAS and multiple food sensitivities, I highly recommend working with a functional healthcare practitioner who can guide you through determining the best diet for your body.
Optimize Your Gut Health
Your gut contains a vast population of mast cells. Therefore, an unhealthy gut can become ground zero for MCAS by triggering excessive mast cell activity.
Addressing gut imbalances such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), leaky gut, Candida overgrowth, and insufficiency dysbiosis is crucial for stabilizing mast cells. Lipopolysaccharide, a toxin found on Gram-negative bacteria membranes (Gram-negative bacteria are often increased in gut dysbiosis), is a potent stimulator of mast cells. (7)
Address Chronic Infections and Toxic Exposures
As I’ve discussed several times before in previous blogs, Lyme disease and its co-infections and mold exposure can trigger MCAS. I recommend partnering with a Lyme-literate doctor to address Lyme disease. In addition, if you are dealing with mold illness or other toxic exposures, a functional healthcare practitioner can work with you to develop a healing protocol.
Stress is a massive (and massively underappreciated) factor that drives mast cell activity. Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), the first hormone in the stress hormone cascade that begins in your brain, is a potent activator of mast cells. (8)
Research shows that acute and chronic stress increase mast cell number and degranulation (the process by which mast cells release their inflammatory compounds) in animals. (9) Both acute and chronic stress can also activate mast cells in humans. Many of my clients find that their MCAS symptoms worsen during stressful times.
Taking measures to manage your stress daily is vital for stabilizing mast cells and facilitating the resolution of MCAS symptoms. There are countless options for ways to manage stress. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Guided meditations in Headspace
- Box breathing
- Taking walks in nature
The Downsides of Pharmaceutical Mast Cell Stabilizers
Several pharmaceutical drugs are used to treat MCAS because of their mast cell-stabilizing properties. Some of the most commonly used drugs include Cromolyn sodium ad Ketotifen. In addition, histamine blockers are also often used to reduce the effects of histamine released from mast cells. While these drugs can be helpful in the short term, some patients don’t tolerate them, and there can be side effects, including:
- Side effects of Cromolyn sodium: Headache, cough, nausea, and swelling of the face, lips, or eyelids (10)
- Side effects of Ketotifen: Drowsiness, dry mouth, increased appetite, weight gain (11)
- Side effects of H1 and H2 blockers: Constipation, dry mouth, difficulty sleeping. Over the long term, H2 blockers can decrease stomach acid (12), leading to potential changes in the gut microbiome and reduced absorption of certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and zinc.
While there’s a time and a place for these drugs, natural mast cell stabilizers can also help reduce mast cell activity without creating a risk of dependence or the side effects of pharmaceutical options.
My Top Seven Favorite Natural Mast Cell Stabilizers
The natural world offers several potent natural mast cell stabilizers to help inhibit mast cell activation and reduce symptoms. Here are my seven favorite natural mast cell stabilizers:
Quercetin is a polyphenol, a phytochemical, found in various fruits and vegetables, including onions, apples, capers, blueberries, and green tea. It may be responsible for many health benefits associated with higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, including improved cardiovascular health. (13)
Quercetin is a natural mast cell stabilizer with efficacy similar to the pharmaceutical mast cell stabilizer Cromolyn sodium. (14) While quercetin can be consumed through whole foods, the amount of quercetin-rich foods you’d need to eat to get a therapeutic benefit is high, so quercetin supplementation is recommended when mast cell stabilization is the goal.
Quercetin bioavailability, or how well quercetin is broken down and absorbed inside the body, is subject to interindividual variability, hinging on factors such as genetics and the gut microbiota. (15) Quercetin phytosome, a highly absorbable form of quercetin, offers an ideal way to supplement with this mast cell-stabilizing compound.
Magnesium is a mineral our bodies require to run hundreds of biochemical processes. Magnesium deficiency is prevalent in our modern-day society due to mineral depletion of our soil (and thus the foods grown in that soil) due to unsustainable agricultural practices. (16) Chronic stress and gut issues that compromise nutrient absorption in the gut also reduce bodily magnesium levels. (17, 18) Most of us could use more magnesium!
Optimizing magnesium intake may be especially important for people with MCAS because magnesium deficiency elicits mast cell activation and raises histamine levels. (19, 20)
The top whole-food sources of magnesium include:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Leafy greens
- Cacao powder
Even if you’re eating a magnesium-rich whole-foods diet, you’ll likely also benefit from supplemental magnesium if you’re dealing with MCAS and histamine issues. My preferred forms of supplemental magnesium are magnesium glycinate and magnesium threonate. Magnesium threonate is more specific for the brain because it can cross the blood-brain barrier, whereas magnesium glycinate is best for replenishing whole-body magnesium status.
The optimal amount of dietary and supplemental magnesium you need depends on various factors, such as your digestive function. I recommend working with a functional healthcare provider to determine the right amount of magnesium for your body’s needs.
Butyrate is a short-chain fatty acid (SCFA), a substance made by certain beneficial gut bacteria when they break down prebiotic carbohydrates in your gut. Butyrate is a significant fuel for intestinal epithelial cells; without sufficient butyrate, your gut cannot be healthy. (21) However, the benefits of butyrate don’t end there! It’s also a natural mast cell stabilizer! (22) The mast cell-stabilizing properties of butyrate are just one example of how a healthy gut can naturally dampen inappropriate mast cell activity.
You can determine your gut’s butyrate level through stool testing, such as the Gut Zoomer from Vibrant America. If your butyrate levels are low, you may benefit from raising them through butyrate supplementation or resistant starch supplementation, which feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut that make butyrate. Examples of foods that contain resistant starch include cooked and cooled white potatoes and white rice, green unripe bananas and plantains, and tigernuts. (23, 24, 25, 26)
Furthermore, emerging probiotic technologies, such as Pendulum Probiotics GI Repair, directly supply your gut with the butyrate-producing bacteria Clostridium butyricum.
Tulsi, aka Holy Basil
Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil, is an adaptogenic herb that helps the body adapt to stress and calms the nervous system. Holy Basil leaves also have mast cell-stabilizing effects! (27)
When consumed in the evening, Tulsi has lovely soothing effects on the nervous system, helping to calm the mind and prepare the body for sleep. However, it doesn’t cause drowsiness, so it can be consumed anytime for mast cell stabilizing support.
I often recommend consuming Holy Basil as tea. Organic India Tulsi Original tea is a great option.
Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) have long been used in traditional Western herbalism for their anti-allergy effects. Stinging nettles have fine hairs on their leaves that contain irritating chemicals; however, once they are processed for internal consumption, these pesky little hairs are removed.
Nettles have been found to inhibit mast cell degranulation, leading to anti-allergy effects in the context of seasonal allergies. (28) However, I’ve also found nettles supplementation, either in capsules or as an infusion (a strong tea), helpful for stabilizing mast cells in MCAS. If you choose the infusion route, buy organic nettle leaves in bulk from a high-quality herb company, such as Mountain Rose Herbs. (29)
When most people hear “iodine,” they think about thyroid function, and that’s it. However, iodine isn’t just crucial for your thyroid; it plays multiple roles in your immune system, including offering mast cell-stabilizing effects. (30)
In my clinical experience, many people need to consume more iodine. I suspect that iodine insufficiency may contribute to MCAS for many people. If you don’t regularly eat seafood or seaweed, the primary food sources of iodine, you will likely need to consume more. What about iodized salt – is it a good source of iodine? While iodized salt contains some iodine, much of the iodine has likely evaporated due to heat and humidity. (31) You should NOT rely on iodized salt as your only source of iodine.
Provided you don’t have an autoimmune thyroid condition, in which case supplemental iodine may exacerbate the autoimmune disease process, supplemental iodine either in capsules or in the form of seaweed flakes is an excellent way to replenish your iodine levels and stabilize mast cells.
Nutrients That Support the Vagus Nerve: Choline, Vitamin B1, and Huperzia Serrata
The parasympathetic nervous system plays a significant role in regulating mast cell activity inside the body. In fact, mast cells have been described as a “bridge” between the nervous and immune systems. This is why mental and emotional stress can have such a significant impact on mast cell activity.
The vagus nerve is one of the primary nerves in the parasympathetic nervous system. Vagus nerve dysfunction is implicated in rogue mast cell activity in many MCAS patients. Consuming nutrients that support parasympathetic nervous system activity may, therefore, help calm down mast cells.
Our bodies need several nutrients for optimal parasympathetic nervous system function: Magnesium (which I’ve already discussed), omega-3 fatty acids (which are best consumed through seafood), vitamin B1, and choline. For example, vitamin B1 (thiamine) supports the vagus nerve (and thus the parasympathetic nervous system) by modulating the activity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. (32) It is also crucial for the structure and function of neurons; we need healthy neurons for proper parasympathetic nervous system activity. (33)
Choline, a member of the B vitamin family, is imperative for creating the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is the chief neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system. (34)
Certain herbs, such as Huperzia Serrata, preserve acetylcholine signaling (35), which is essential for healthy vagus nerve function.
Parasym Plus provides a convenient way to consume several critical vagus nerve nutrients, supporting the parasympathetic nervous system and potentially dampening mast cell activity. I’ve been using Parasym Plus personally and in my nutrition practice for several years with great results! Parasym Plus is therefore one of my top seven natural mast cell stabilizer supplements!
The Bottom Line on Natural Mast Cell Stabilizers
Natural mast cell stabilizers can be extraordinarily helpful for calming down hyperactive mast cells, reducing symptoms, and improving quality of life while you work on correcting the underlying causes of MCAS. Need help personalizing your nutrition and lifestyle plan for MCAS recovery? I’d love to work with you in my nutrition practice! If you’re ready to take your next steps towards healing, schedule a discovery call with me to learn more about how we can work together!