Healthy Living and Wine: Wine Headaches

I used to get a wine headache with every glass of red wine. As much as I prayed it was a fluke and that I wouldn't fall victim to the infamous Red Wine Headache (RWH), after about an hour, my head would start throbbing. Does this sound like you or someone you know? Well, as it turns out there are several things that could cure RWH. 

What Causes a Wine Headache?

As it turns out, my wine choices may have contributed to the reaction. Poorly made wines tend to have more adulteration such as residual sugar, sulfur, fining agents or higher alcohol to make them taste better.

“If it comes from a box or has a critter on the label then it’s suspect for headache potential.”

Sulfites in Wine Cause Headaches

Back in the 1980s the food and drug administration discovered that about 1% of the population was allergic to sulfites. Because of the health concern for the sensitive population, wines above 20 ppm (parts per million) must be labeled with “contains sulfites”. Sulfites are found naturally on grapes and sulfur is also commonly added in small amounts at the beginning of fermentation and prior to bottling. Typically, red wines have about 50-350 ppm and white wines have more, about 250-450 ppm. Mangos and apricots contain about 4-10 times as many (1000-3000 ppm) sulfites.

Histamines Cause Inflammation

Dr. Freitag from the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago originally wrote an article about how histamines may be the culprit in causing red wine headaches. Foods that have been fermented or aged have higher levels of histamines such as tofu, tempeh, champagne, red wine, ketchup and aged meats. Histamines can cause inflammatory flushing and wakefulness at night. Since most histamines are a cause of allergic reactions (similar to hay-fever), taking an anti-histamine prior to drinking may solve the problem. An ancient Chinese cure calls for black or oolong tea to reduce swelling.

Sensitivity to Tannins

Tannin is what gives a red wine pigment, bitterness and that mouth-drying reaction. It also is what makes red wines last a long time. Many red wine headache sufferers point to tannin as the problem because white wines contain much less. The tannin comes from the skins, seeds and stems of a grape and also from wood. Many commercial wines also add tannins from commercial refined sources made from chestnut, Indian gooseberry, gambir leaf and the wood of a very dense dark-wooded Spanish tree called Quebracho. The problem with the tannin argument is that chocolate, tea and soy are also all very high in tannin, so it begs the question “If you do not react to tannin in tea, why would you react to tannin in wine?”

Increased Tyramine Levels

As foods age and proteins are broken down, tyramine levels increase. Tyramine as an isolated enzyme is a major headache-causer for people who suffer from migraines. The enzyme is known for causing tightening of blood vessels. However, as much as tyramine could be the culprit, its presence in such a variety of foods such as aged cheese, cured ham, yogurt, soy sauce, beans, shrimp paste, coconut, yeast, bananas, raspberries, peanuts, pineapple, avocado, eggplant and others begs to differ. In fact after repeated exposure people actually tend to have a reduced reactionary response. So… more drinking to overcome the classic RWH?