The Headache of Red Wine Headaches!
We hear the comment, “I get a headache from red wine!” every week. We also hear, “Which red wine doesn’t have any sulfites? The sulfites give me a headache.” It’s a difficult conversation because the headache/sulfites discussion isn’t that simple, and all anyone wants is to find a nice wine to enjoy and have a good time. Here are some of the possible causes of the dreaded “red wine headache (RWH.)
It’s Sulfites, right? Not necessarily, that’s just one possible cause. However, since everyone loves to hate sulfites, we’ll start with them. Sulfites are part of the winemaking process, for stopping fermentation and ensuring it does not restart on the way to your dinner table. Sulfites are added to wine as a preservative in winemaking. They also occur naturally when grape juice ferments into wine. Therefore, there is no such thing as a “sulfite-free” wine. With the exception of mass-produced wines, most winemakers try to use as few sulfites as possible. If red wine produces more of a headache for you than white wine, again, the problem is not the sulfites, because white wines contain more sulfites than red wines. In fact, only about 1% of the population actually has a sulfite allergy or lacks the enzymes to process them. If you are in that 1%, you are probably already avoiding dried fruits, eggs, chips, pickles, raisins, and soy sauce because these foods have several times more sulfites in them than wine does.
Tannins, however, are a likely suspect for issues with the RWH. Tannins are found in the seeds, stems, and skins of grapes, and are much more likely to be found in red wine than in white wine. The wine gains its color from fermenting the juice with the skins, which pulls out the tannins along with the color. The astringency of tannins causes a drying, bitter sensation in the mouth. Tannins also act as a natural preservative, which is why red wine usually needs lower sulfites and generally ages longer and better than white wines. Some people are rather sensitive to tannins. Tannins also tell the body to release serotonin, which can cause headaches in some people. Tannins are even thought to be a migraine trigger. But, if tannins are your particular issue with red wine, you should already be avoiding tea, coffee, chocolate, and soy – all high in tannins.
We are not talking about overindulgence here! If you drink too much wine, clearly you will have a hangover! Many people believe that it is the sulfites in wine that cause the dreaded RWH that plagues so many people. THIS IS NOT TRUE! There is no definitive research that pinpoints where these headaches come from. They may be caused by a number of different factors and can vary by person. Some research suggests that histamines and tyramine, which are naturally occurring substances in wine may trigger these headaches. Histamine dilates blood vessels. Tyramine first constricts, then dilates blood vessels, and can cause blood pressure to rise. Other experts think tannins are the cause of the RWH. It has also been postulated that RWH can be caused by a strain of wild yeast or bacteria. Some people get RWH from wine from specific growing regions, which lends credence to the theory of regional native yeast strains causing the issue. I can drink red wines from Europe but suffer horribly from domestic red wines. I have encountered other people who have the opposite issue. If you have issues with RWH, take care not to eat sugary foods with red wine, which can exacerbate the problem. Also, cheap, poorly made wines with added sugar, sulfur, fining agents, or higher alcohol content should be avoided. One wine columnist added, “If it comes from a box, or has a critter on the label, then it’s suspect for headache potential!”
Some possible home remedies that help sufferers of RWH include
1. Drink a glass of water for each glass of wine,
2. Take an antihistamine before drinking wine, or
3. Take aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen to reduce swelling. But, don’t give up on red wine!!
Try different regions or different varietals or producers. Most people will find at least one type they can enjoy!