Since I lead wine tastings for a living, I get a lot of people telling me about their red wine headaches (RWH), which they attribute to sulfite or tannin sensitivities. Because I hear these complaints so often, I did a little research and will share with you what I learned about possible causes of, and solutions for, RWH. Thank you to fix.com for some great information for this article.
The long and short of it ~ there is a real phenomenon called RWH, and there is no consensus on causes or cures.
There is also no consensus on when it shows up. Some people, for example, can drink French red wines but not American red wines. Some people can drink American but not French. Some people are okay with certain red varietals. Some people are sensitive to all red varietals.
Causes of RWH
There are four factors that are considered to be the most likely contributors to RWH.
In all likelihood, several of these can be a factor for most RWH sufferers. I’ll explain each of the contributors below.
Suflites are a natural byproduct of yeast. In limited quantity, sulfites are an integral part of wine chemistry. Without them, most wine would spoil from bacteria, and their shelf life would be dramatically reduced.
Many people assume that they are allregic to sulfites, because sulfites have gotten a lot of bad press over the last 10 to 20 years. Truth be told, less than 1% of the population suffer from sulfite allergies, and most of these people experience breathing problems, not headaches. The only people known to get headaches on a regular basis from sulfites are asthmatics.
Also, it turns out that white wine typically has more sulfites than red wine. Yet few people get white wine headaches. Furthermore, dried fruit has more sulfites than white wine, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody getting a dried fruit headache. Have you?
Tannins are the flavonoids in wine that make your mouth pucker. Tannins are more prevalent in red wines than in whites, because they come from the grape skins, which play a much more important role in red wine than white.
Some studies show that tannins cause the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that, at high levels, can cause headaches in people who suffer from migraines.
But non-migraine sufferers get RWH too. And other foods with tannins, including tea and chocolate, don’t cause headaches. So without doing serious research, it’s hard to fully understand what role tannins play with RWH.
These are compounds found in grape skins (and other plants). They are more prevalent in red wines than in whites.
Some experts believe that the combination of alcohol and a histamine deficiency can cause headaches.
Tyramine (an amino acid) is one of the many natural by-products of the fermentation process, so it’s present in both wine and cheese. Tyramine affects blood pressure and can be problematic for people whose bodies have difficulty breaking it down.
There is no known fix for people with tyramine sensitivity other than a strong recommendation to have wine or cheese, not wine and cheese, since combining the two will make the situation worse.
Prostaglandins, hormone-like lipid compounds, are in the tissue of pretty much all animals and are also found in wine. They are linked to pain and inflammation, both of which can contribute to headaches. Drinking wine might temporarily change the balance of prostaglandins in your body, resulting in a headache.
Solutions for RWH
There is not a single solution that will work for every RWH sufferer. But here are a few possible solutions:
- Take ibuprofin, acetaminophen or aspirin one hour before drinking red wine.
- Take an antihistamine one hour before drinking red wine.
- Drink black tea before drinking red wine.
- Try a small amount of red wine and wait 15 minutes. If you don’t feel a headache coming on, the wine you’re drinking is probably fine for you.
- Stay away from really cheap wine.
If you suffer from RWH, try each of these remedies at different times and keep a journal to track your reactions.
I would love to hear from you about your experiences with RWH.