But, strangely enough, I also frequently hear “I like red wine but it gives me a headache”.
What’s with all these headaches and why does red or white wine hurt your head? There’s more than one answer to this dilemma, and the truth is that experts (=doctors, scientists, wine specialists, etc) aren’t totally in agreement on why exactly this “wine headache” happens to some unlucky individuals.
Let’s take a look at some commonly accused culprits:
- Alcohol– Wine doesn’t give you headaches, alcohol does. Some people suffering headaches after they drink red or white wine might actually be suffering from dehydration, an effect from alcohol. In other words, you might get headaches simply from drinking too much wine and too little water. But if that’s the case, it’s pretty easily remedied by making sure to eat while you drink, try not to overdo it, and drink water before you go to bed.
- Sulfites– Sulfite sensitivity affects a small percentage of the population (< 1%) and hence is very unlikely to be the reason behind that throbbing brain cage, statistically speaking. Also because sulfite-sensitive people drinking wine would experience respiratory problems (=asthmatic attacks and breathing difficulty) and skin irritation rather than head pain. Labeling laws requiring the phrase “contains sulfites” has maybe caused a lot of worry and definite confusion on this (to some degree naturally occurring) ingredient. It is seemingly taken to be a warning against harmful ingredients, like the warnings against aspartame on some sugar substitutes. The truth is it’s more like the “may contain traces of nuts” type statement on most candy. So though it is a warning, it’s a warning to those allergic or sensitive to sulfites or people with serious asthma. If you still aren’t convinced, consider if things like dried fruit give you a headache (dried fruit has sometimes 900 times more sulfites in it than wine!) For more info on sulfites and wine, jump to the sulfites post!
- Tannins– Tannins are a natural compound in the skins and stems of grapes which are bitter and astringent. You can understand what they are by just eating a regular grape, or by drinking black tea (black tea, like some other foods and drinks, also has tannins). They can also come from the wood of barrels used for ageing or fermentation. Tannins are an important element in red wines especially because they give texture, color, structure, and ability to age and evolve to some wines. It’s more common to notice them in red wines because red wine juice spends more time with its skins than white or rose’ wines. So how do they relate to headaches? It’s believed that tannins can block serotonin production, causing blood vessels in the brain to constrict, and resulting in a migraine. This might explain why some people can drink white wine with little problem but sipping even small amounts of red gives them a splitting headache.
- Histamines– Those dreaded histamines, those things that make you sneeze and wheeze around cats and pollen in the springtime, are thought by some to be to blame for red wine or “Champagne” headaches as well. Red wine and bubbly wines can have anywhere from 20% to 200% more histamines in it than white and/or still (=not sparkly) wine. Histamines cause blood vessels to dilate in folks lacking an enzyme to process them, which may result in a throbbing headache. But at the end of the day there is a lot of research still needed before anyone can be sure there’s any relationship between wine headaches and histamines, as numerous medical journals claim that there is no connection between wine intolerance and histamine levels.
- Tyramine– Tyramine is another naturally occurring substance found in wine as well as other foods like cheeses and chocolate. Wine-drinkers having the MAO (=Monoamine oxidase) enzyme can process tyramine so it has no negative effect but those lacking MAO can experience an increase in blood pressure, resulting in…you guessed it: a headache. If tyramine is the cause of your red wine headache, you will notice a similar headache when you eat aged cheeses, chocolate, and smoked or cured meats.
Some things to keep in mind if some types of wines give you headaches:
- All wines are not the equal. Not all wines have the same amount of potential irritants like tyramine and histamines in them, even if they are seemingly similar. This means that aside from color, two white wines or two red wines might be totally dissimilar, and might have different effects on a drinker. Even the same grape variety, i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese, grown in different parts of the world make quite literally a world of a difference on the resulting wine. This means that unless you and a medical professional are fairly confident on what is causing your headaches, avoiding an entire color of wine might not be necessary or even beneficial. Talk to a doctor to get to the bottom of your adverse wine reactions.
- If you have different side effects when drinking wine, you might have an allergy or an intolerance to wine ….in which case I’m sorry, but you may need to lay off the grape sauce completely. Symptoms of having a wine allergy include: congestion, diarrhea, shortness of breath, or swelling of lips/nose/throat…these are much more severe reactions than a simple wine headache. More common are intolerances and these symptoms might include: skin flushing and suddenly feeling hot with cold sweats. Wine intolerance is generally less serious than allergies, but you should always talk to your doctor about any suspicions of this nature to be sure and safe.
So what can we conclude about the wine headache? If you suffer from wine headaches you should:
- First of all, see a Doctor. Intolerances and allergies are potentially serious so there’s no reason to make guesses about what causes your symptoms…let alone self-diagnose by internet reading! If your symptoms are mild and a Doctor approves, make notes of specific wines that do and don’t irritate you – and the specific symptoms. By keeping a diary of what wines cause irritation, you can find a common factor that doesn’t work with your body, be it tannins or tyramine or the alcohol itself. You might be surprised at what you discover!
- Eat while you drink. This seemingly easy tip can very easily prevent both headaches and hangovers.
- Drink water. Also seemingly simple advice, it’s not hard to go overboard on the wine drinking and forget to drink water before bed.
- Ask for advice. If you tell a sommelier, waiter, or wine shop specialist something along the lines of “I want a red but I’ve noticed wines like X and Y give me headaches”, that should be enough info for them to guide you to the right bottle.
- Cheap wine may give you headaches but expensive ones might too. Though there are some aspects of cheap wines (and I mean cheeeeap wine) that might make it easier to get a headache much like lower shelf spirits at a pub. Cheap sparkling wines are carbonated in ways which are considered by some to be related to headaches (namely injecting CO2 directly into a still wine is a cheap and maybe headache-inducing method). That being said, sensitivities exist regardless of the bottle price so costly vino might bother you just the same. In the USA, aim to drink products that cost more than $2/bottle (but feel assured that you can drink well for less than $15). In Italy expect to pay even as little as 8 Euros on a decent bottle of everyday red or white.
- Don’t push it. Don’t go out looking for adverse reactions….try to drink what you think WON’T make you feel bad. If you have more severe reactions to any type of wine, say shortness of breath, flushing, etc, it’s time to put down the glass, immediately.
- Cross check potential irritants with other foods/drinks to eliminate possible headache-causers. For example, to see if tannins bother you, drink black tea and note if you get the same headache.
Here’s hoping your headaches clear up!