The Red Wine Headache

This isn’t about the wretched headache that you wake up with the morning following a wine tasting turned festival or too many bottles of red after a wine and cheese party. No, this piece is dedicated to those individuals, who, inexplicably get headaches from red wine shortly after the first few sips or the initial glass.

If you think you know the answer to this puzzle – you’re wrong – it is not sulfites. Contrary to popular belief, sulfites don’t make your brain swell or induce nauseating headaches. In fact, sulfites are linked to respiratory disturbances, such as asthma and allergy symptoms, not headaches. This, coming from Dr. Fredrick Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, who chatted with the Wall Street Journal on this very subject.

The rumors about sulfites and headaches stem from wines purchased outside the country. People go on vacation and don’t experience a headache, noting that the wine does not say “contains sulfites,” a requirement for any wine sold in America. Sulfites occur naturally in any wine – it protects the shelf life – but they can induce severe reactions in sensitive individuals, which is why the FDA requires the notation on the label. Organic wines also contain sulfites, however no additional sulfites are added.

The chemical substances, histamine and tyramine are classically blamed and, though no studies have proven the fact, the evidence is convincing. Experts believe the headaches may be a result fo the fact that histamines dilate blood vessels, while tyramine constricts and then dilates blood vessels – a painful occurrence. Some individuals may have trouble metabolizing histamines due to a missing enzyme in their gut, while tyramine is known to cause increases in blood pressure and headaches in some people.

Tannins in wine are yet another theory. This theory, however, is easily refuted, given the fact that tannins induce headaches in people who already suffer from migraines and headaches occur across multiple individuals. Not to mention that tannins are found in caffeinated beverages, chocolate and soy – foods not known for inducing headaches.

Joe Coulombe, the founder of Trader Joe’s offered an explanation to two Napa Valley Wine Guides and authors, Sara and Monty Preiser. Coulombe believes that the increased popularity of wine and the number of people consuming young wines has triggered the red wine headache (RWH) phenomenon.  Aged wines are known to induce headaches or even hangovers because many of the substances that induce a hangover are rendered inert during the aging process. Makes a good case for investing in a wine cellar…

According to a number of experts surveyed by the Wall Street Journal and the Preisers the majority believe wine headaches are induced by over consumption, too little food in the stomach, histamines and cheap wine. Meaning, it truly remains a mystery. The best advice, Dr. Freitag could offer, “I would recommend that someone choose a white wine over a red and drink modest amounts. If you drink wine with any regularity and if you find there’s a type of wine that you enjoy and that doesn’t give you headaches, try to stick with it or something similar.”


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