As a wine writer and lover, nothing frustrates me more than hearing people say they can only drink white wine because it doesn’t have sulfites, alluding to the famous wine headache that follows a night of heavy imbibing. Actually, white wine does have sulfites. In fact, all wines contain sulfites as they are a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation. Sometimes, winemakers add more to preserve wine. White wine usually has more added sulfites than red.
Red wine is made with grape skins that contain tannins, which is a natural preservative. Dried fruit, French fries and packaged meat contain more sulfites per serving than wine does. Dr. Frederick Freitag, Associate Director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago and a board member of the National Headache Foundation, says on the subject:
“I grow a small number of grapes and make my own wine, and if you don’t do something to shut down the native yeasts and bacteria that come in with the grape skin, you’re going to get wine that is absolutely horrific. Sulfites are the most benign way of doing that, but they don’t cause headaches.”
So why do people get headaches from wine? More likely than not it has to do with allergies.
Grapes, and the wine they form, are an agricultural and fermented product. Another naturally occurring byproduct of both is histamines.
Dan L. Keiller, President of the newly formed Medical Wine Interest and Education Society in San Diego, researched histamines in wine and found that “red wines, in general, contain more histamine than Champagnes or sparkling wines and those usually contain more histamine than [still] white wines.”
Histamine reactions are linked with people who have low levels of an enzyme that can help them metabolize the histamine. The exclusion of this enzyme is likely the reason for the headaches. If you are prone to R.W.H. (red wine headaches), try taking an antihistamine before indulging and see if that helps.
If so, you have your answer. If not, read on.
Tyramine is a naturally occurring amino acid found naturally in some foods. It’s especially found in aged and fermented foods like cheese, cured meats and, you guessed it, wine.
If you’ve noticed that your headaches are worse when you combine two tyramine-heavy foods together (think wine and cheese or charcuterie and wine), then this could be the culprit for your headaches.
In the 1960s, research found that people prone to migraines who also had a deficiency of MAO, or monoamine oxidase – an enzyme in our body that breaks down tyramine, had headaches after they ate foods containing tyramine. Since there is no cure for tyramine reactions, your best bet is to avoid foods that contain them.
Prostaglandins could be another reason for your R.W.H. Prostaglandins are hormone-like lipid compounds present in all animal tissue and also found in red wine.
For some people, consuming wine will force the temporary change of prostaglandins in their body resulting in a wine headache. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen may help to prevent/relieve these kinds of headaches because they are prostaglandin inhibitors.
Editor’s Note: You should consult a medical professional before consuming pain relievers prior to drinking if you are concerned about your stomach health or have previous negative reactions.
Tannins are the flavonoids in wine that create a dry effect and taste. They are found in skins, seeds and stems. Red wine is made with skins, so it is higher in tannin content than white.
For some, the consumption of tannins results in the opening up of blood vessels, a condition called vasorelaxation. This could lead to a headache.
However, Dr. Marion Nestle, Chairwoman of the Department of Food Studies at New York University, dismisses this theory because tannins are also present in tea, chocolate and soy, and rarely do people complain about headaches surrounding those items.
A R.W.H sufferer himself, Dr. Freitag says there is only one way to solve the problem. Since all wine is made differently, he suggests sampling some to see if it is the one for you as one variety may not have the expected headache reaction.
“If you really like red wine,” he says, “you should try different brands, different grapes and different countries of origin. That is the only way you are going to find out.”