Some people get migraine headaches hours after drinking red wine. There are others who don’t drink much and still develop headaches anyway. So what causes red wine headaches (RWH)?
A lot of people like to blame sulfites for their discomfort, but they are not the only reason for red wine headaches. In fact, most wines have sulfites as a preservative agent, and the percentage of this agent in wine is relatively low. According to experts, white wine contains between 250 and 450 parts per millions of sulfites. Red wine has even less sulfite content, with a range of 50 to 350 parts per million.
There are more popular food items that contain higher amounts of sulfites than red wine. For example, candy, jams, canned sodas, packaged meats, canned soups and frozen juices all have a higher amount of sulfites than red wine. Also, dried fruits and processed foods such as lunch meats happen to have more sulfites than red wine.
Therefore, sulfites are not the ultimate cause of these headaches, but they have been known to cause respiratory problems like asthma. There are several other headache-inducing culprits that are responsible for RWH.
The four major causes of red wine headaches
The major headache-inducing culprits of red wine headaches are histamine, tyramine, sugar and tannins.
There is approximately 20% to 200% more histamine in red wine than in white, and it is also found in foods like sauerkraut and aged cheese. Some people are allergic to histamine due to a deficiency in the enzyme called diamine oxidase. People who most often have trouble with histamine in wine are those who lack this enzyme in their intestines and are unable to metabolize it. Taking an antihistamine an hour before drinking red wine may help to reduce this allergic reaction and its headache-inducing symptoms.
Tyramine can cause your blood pressure to rise, and triggers headaches in some people. These same people may also get headaches from aged cheeses, smoked or cured meats, and citrus fruits that contain tyramine.
The amount of tyramine depends on the type of grape that is used. Riesling is an example of one of the higher tyramine-containing wines. Chardonnays and sauvignon blancs are low in tyramine, and chiantis are higher. It is a good practice to examine the ingredients on the label before selecting a wine for consumption.
Tannins are a chemical substance that comes from grape stems, skins, and seeds, and they are responsible for RWH. They are used to prevent oxidation, and play an important role in the wine’s aging process. Tannins give red wine its pigmentation, bitter taste and that mouth-drying reaction.
So how do tannins cause headaches? The Harvard Health Letter conducted several controlled experiments that indicated that tannins in the blood cause the release of the brain chemical serotonin. When there are changes in serotonin levels, this may produce headaches in vulnerable individuals.
It is also very interesting to note that chocolate, tea and soy also have high levels of tannin, yet there are those that do not react to it, as they would with tannins in wine.
The combination of sugar and alcohol can create a really bad headache. When drinking alcohol or sugar, a person may not be well hydrated, so the body will get the necessary water from other parts of the body like the head.
When the liquid begins to be depleted from the head, a headache is formed. Dehydration can cause headaches, so it is essential to drink plenty of water to help process the alcohol.
How to relieve red wine headaches
The following recommendations will help prevent red wine headaches:
- drink plenty of water
- take an antihistamine an hour before drinking
- avoid wines with sugar
- drink wines labeled semi-dry or sweet
- take vitamin B6 which can help the body to metabolize histamine
- stay away from cheaper wines which contain more sugar
- drink in moderation
Overall, if you follow these tips, you will be able to alleviate red wine headaches. It is also wise to check the levels of alcohol on the label, because high levels of alcohol can also contribute to a headache. Be sure to drink plenty of water and eat first before you indulge in a glass of wine. A little precaution can make a huge difference in how you react to red wine.