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What Causes Red Wine Headaches?

on 06/03/17 at 11:06 am

Booze News

red-wine-headaches-hangoverIn the wine business, it’s sometimes joked that the most headaches a wine will ever cause happen long before that wine ever gets sipped, since grape-growing and winemaking can be so stressful – particularly when the grapes are harvested.

For some people, however, the headache comes after drinking the wine, and it’s no joke. For those folks, the consumption of red wine in particular seems to cause headache symptoms, even with moderate drinking, leading to a phenomenon commonly called red wine headache (or RWH for short).

While we’re not medical professionals (everything presented here is for educational purposes only, and isn’t meant to be actionable medical advice), we do have some potentially helpful information on RWH. So if you often find yourself suffering a bit after drinking your favorite red, you’ve come to the right place.

First, we should talk about what probably isn’t causing your wine headache: sulfites.

Poor sulfites have been given the redheaded stepchild treatment when it comes to wine, and yet they’re an important and integral part of wine chemistry. Without sulfites, most wine would spoil from bacteria, and their shelf life would almost certainly be significantly reduced. Wine labels carry a sulfite warning only because a small percentage of the population can have severe allergic reactions to them. Per Chicago’s Diamond Headache Clinic, these reactions almost always manifest as severe asthmatic problems, rather than headaches. Dried fruits and lunch meats tend to have significantly more sulfite content than wine, so if you have ever eaten those without problems, the sulfites in wine are unlikely to impact you. If you’re still not convinced that your RWH isn’t caused by sulfites, consider that red wines generally contain lower sulfite levels than white wines.

So what is causing that vicious red wine headache? While no one knows for sure, and it’s likely that there are several factors at play simultaneously, science is honing in on the following as potential RWH culprits.
How Histamines Contribute to Red Wine Headaches - What Causes Red Wine Headaches?
Source: Fix.com Blog

If you’ve ever taken medicine for allergy or cold relief, you’ve likely heard of histamines; compounds that are known to literally create headaches for allergy sufferers. The bad news is that many bacterially fermented products contain histamines, and that includes items such as cheese and wine. Histamine reactions are thought to be linked to low levels of the diamine oxidase enzyme in the body, which might explain why histamines only cause headaches in a subset of the population.

Unfortunately, red wine has higher histamine levels than white wine. Adding insult to injury, drinking alcohol might increase histamine levels in blood plasma, even if the drink itself is low in histamines. Taking an antihistamine about an hour or so before drinking red wine might help to prevent red wine headaches, but care should be taken to avoid any known drug interactions (just as care should be taken when consuming alcohol with any medicine).

How Tyramine Contributes to Red Wine Headaches - What Causes Red Wine Headaches?
Source: Fix.com Blog

Tyramine (an amino acid) is one of the many natural by-products of the fermentation process, so it’s also present in most wine and cheese. What makes this stuff a RWH contender is its effects on blood pressure; it has been shown to trigger migraine headaches for some people whose bodies have difficulty breaking tyramine down.

If you’re one of those unlucky wine lovers, there isn’t currently a whole lot of relief to offer you. However, you can stack the odds in your favor against a wine headache by avoiding consumption of multiple fermented products together. In other words, skip the wine-and-cheese pairing and opt for just the cheese, or just the wine.

How Prostaglandins Contribute to Red Wine Headaches - What Causes Red Wine Headaches?
Source: Fix.com Blog