Red wine headaches. It’s the most common reason I’ve heard for people abstaining from red wine, even though they like it. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. “The sulfites in red wine give me headaches.”
Ahhh!!! … asoioaweyr923q8htt9q48y9 … That was me banging my head against the keyboard. This is one of the biggest myths about wine and it’s so prevalent that I even started believing it, forgetting everything that I know about wine in the process. So first things first. Let’s debunk the myth that sulfites in red wine cause headaches.
In the United States, the EU, and Australia, the allowable level of sulfites is actually about 25% higher for white wines than red wines. If you get headaches from red wine and not white, it is extremely unlikely that sulfites are the cause. There is no credible medical source that definitively links sulfites in wine to headaches. If you have a problem with sulfites (and that is still a big IF), those found in wine will likely cause respiratory problems, not headaches. If you are a glutton for punishment and want to test your sulfite tolerance, one way is to eat a healthy portion of dried fruit which are high in sulfites and see what happens. Dried fruit have far more sulfites than most wines. If it turns out that you are sensitive to them, that is a good test. There are a small number of wineries that use minimal and in some cases, no sulfites in their wines. Most mass produced wines will have significant amounts of sulfites however. Look for smaller boutique wineries, especially those that are Organic. Organic wines in the US cannot have sulfites added to the wine, although remember that there are some naturally occurring sulfites in wine. Other countries allow for some added sulfites often limit the concentration. However, if you are interested in these types of wines, make sure that you know what you are getting into. Many wineries produce wines with organically grown grapes but don’t actually produce wines organically because they use additives (like sulfites). Be certain that you know what you are actually getting.
With sulfites out of the way as a likely cause of red wine headaches, the medical community seems split over the likely cause of them being tannins, histamines and/or tyramines (OK, science alert warning; if you’re not interested skip the blue part):
- Tannins occur naturally in the skins and seeds of grapes but are also introduced by oak aging, and are a polyphenolic compound. There are a number of these types of compounds found in red wine so there is no clear understanding which one or ones cause reactions. It’s likely that different people react to different compounds.
- Histamines, which cause blood vessels to swell, are introduced into wine as part of the fermentation process. They occur in both red and white wine but are roughly 30 times more prevalent in red wines.
- Tyramines, which can cause an increase in blood pressure, occur naturally in food when it begins to break down, so consequently, they are in both red and white wine. It’s not hard to follow how this would occur, given that wine for all its appeal, is basically spoiled grapes.
So where does all of this leave us? Science has yet to find the smoking gun for wine headaches and its entirely possible that there will be different causes for different people. So rather than focus on a single remedy, we’ve provided a number of suggestions that we’ve found. HOWEVER … full disclosure time … We are not trained or licensed practitioners of medicine, so this just represents information we’ve found. We suggest you do some additional research prior to trying your own remedy.
Unfortunately, for this article but very fortunately for us, neither Karen or I get wine headaches (at least not while drinking. The occasional bout of self inflicted “bottle flu” has been known to bite us but that really can’t be blamed on an adverse reaction although we’ve both tried). My likely remedy for wine headaches would likely be to drink more wine.
We like the ideas of addressing the problem before it occurs (except of course for preventing a headache by just not drinking which is a classic case of the cure being worse than the ailment). With that in mind, here area number of suggestions we’ve researched. We’ve left out a few of the more unusual ones that seem “far fetched” and could include breaking the law, practicing voodoo, or sacrificing small farm animals. If you are going to look into suggestion 1 or 4, or any other potential remedy where you may take even a mild, over the counter medication, we suggest consulting with trained medical personnel first.
- If it turns out that you are getting histamine headaches, a number of sites suggest taking a non-drowsy, antihistamine tablet prior to drinking red wine. Not hard to see how this might help. Several sufferers of red wine headaches state that after taking them, they didn’t suffer any headache.
- Drink a couple of glasses of water at least 60 minutes before drinking wine. Insuring you body is well hydrated is the most basic step you can take because many headaches are caused by dehydration. The majority of Americans tend be in a perpetual state of partial dehydration so starting a drinking session without enough water in your system is like trying gain all of your daily food nutrition through rice cakes…not going to work out very well for you.
- Drink a glass of water with each glass of wine. Why? We’re assuming you read #2 above and understood it. Staying hydrated shouldn’t be a one time act. Keep it up.
- Aspirin or other mild blood thinners may counter-act some of the effects of tyramines.
- Try red wines lighter in tannins like Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Dolcetto or Sangiovese.
If you end up with a head feeling like it’s been used as a base drum in a heavy metal band after drinking wine, hopefully we’ve given you a couple of suggestions that give you a chance of enjoying wine without any of the side effects.
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