Most people are familiar with the nausea and headaches associated with hang-overs. These are the body’s response to both dehydration, and the depletion of Vitamin B in the liver. Fortunately, these maladies are easy to correct, with time, nutritional supplementation, and water. But there are some people who suffer with headaches after just a glass or two of wine. They go home shaking their heads and asking themselves “Why do I get headaches from wine?”
A common misconception is that the headaches are caused from an allergy to the sulfides present in all wine. There are a very small number of people who are allergic to sulfides, but if you had that allergy, you wouldn’t have to wonder about it. You would know without a doubt, for two reasons: First, the allergic reaction to sulfides is not a headache, but anaphylaxis, causing the throat to swell shut, abdominal cramping and an inability to breath. This reaction can occur within seconds of ingestion, and requires the immediate administration of epinephrine, or death can result quickly. Second, sulfides are present in many foods such as dried fruit, and vegetables like raisins, dates, prunes, Trail Mixes, celery, carrots, tomatoes, and other products containing them like cereals, candies, soups, etc… Sulfides are not unique to wine.
There are a few people who experience difficulty after drinking white wine, but the main culprit for wine headaches is red wine, so much so that it has been given it’s own designation, RWH (Red Wine Headache). In rare cases, the headache could be a result of an allergy to certain histamines. Red wine can contain up to 200% more histamines than white wine. People with this allergy are deficient in a particular enzyme. The deficiency, coupled with the alcohol can cause the headache/flush response. Fortunately, this can be easily prevented by drinking a cup or two of black tea before drinking red wine, and if you are making a night of it, a cup at periodic intervals. Black teas contain quercetin, a bioflavonoid that inhibits the reaction to histamines.
Another suspected cause is the amount of tannins in the wine. Tannins are flavoniods that give wines their mouth-drying bitterness. Tannins are contained in the skin, seeds and stems of grapes. The skins give wine it’s red color, which is why red wines have so much more tannins than white wine. Tannins can cause a release of serotonin in some people. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, happiness, and well-being. It is secreted in the brain, and is triggered by almost anything a person enjoys doing. However, excess serotonin can cause headaches, and is also one of the causes of migraine headaches.
Winemakers try to limit the amount of undesirable tannins from seeds by pressing the grapes gently during the juice extraction process. Wines can also absorb more tannins from the wooden barrels they are sometime aged and stored in. But it is a trade-off, because some tannins are necessary to prevent oxidation in wine. As wine ages, these precipitate out into the sediment, so young wines have a much greater potential for headaches. People who suffer from RWH may still be able to enjoy red wine by simply drinking more aged wines.
French red wines from Bordeaux, and some Italian wines are particularly high in tannins when young. Other wines with high tannin levels when young are Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah/Shiraz. Some red wines that are low in tannins are Burgundy, Pinot Noir, and Beaujolaise. One way to tell a low tannin red wine on the shelf is to look for the traditional sloped-shouldered “Burgundy Bottle”, especially on European wines. There is a marked difference in tannin levels between different varieties and brands of red wines. If you suffer from RWH and this is the cause, unfortunately, there is not much you can do about it other than trying to stay with low-tannin red wines, stick to white wine, or avoid wine completely.
Another answer to the question “Why do I get headaches from wine?” may be the release of prostaglandin, caused by various compounds unique to red wine. There are people who are unable to metabolize prostaglandins, which are trans-membrane receptors present in smooth muscle tissue. Prostaglandins are lipid compounds derived from fatty acids. They do many things, one of which is to cause dilation, and constriction of vascular smooth muscle. The brain is made of vascular smooth muscle tissue, hence the headache when an excess of prostaglandins are released, and not metabolized.
If this is the cause, there are preventative measures available. Acetylsalycitic acid (Aspirin), is a prostaglandin inhibitor, so taking one an hour or so before consuming wine may help. Other prostaglandin inhibitors are Acetaminophine (Motrin, Tylenol, etc…), and Ibuprofen (Advil). Do not use acetaminophen because in some people, it can cause acute liver failure when combined with alcohol, or Ibuprofin, which can cause stomach bleeding when mixed with alcohol.
The last possible cause of headaches could be an adverse reaction to certain yeasts, or bacteria that may be present in some wines.
If headaches after drinking wine is a persistent problem, you have two choices: Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages (the obvious solution), or consult with a physician. A physician may be able to pin-point the exact cause, and offer solutions.
The reason that there is so much disagreement as to the causes of headaches associated with wine drinking is that there is no great interest in financing research for it. Rather than spend money on research, the federal government would most likely just say “stop drinking”, instead of facing flack from the wine industry. And the Wine Industry has no interest in funding research, because they will not want to bring up the issue that there is a problem.
Of course, nothing in this article is intended as medical advice of any kind. It is for informational purposes only. If you keep asking yourself “Why do I get headaches from wine?”, you really need to be posing that question to your doctor.