Headaches from red wine are a genuine and troubling phenomena, troubling because any certain sufferer will get a headache from certain red wines and not from others. But there doesn’t seem to be just one individual cause. Red wine headaches vary in their severity from mildly gentle to full-on migraine.

Just half a glass of wine can trigger an attack within fifteen minutes or thereabouts, and these attacks can last for several hours. Two average sized glasses of wine could even trigger a migraine in those people who are prone to getting them.

Some experts question whether the sulfites in the wine are the source of red wine headaches (RWH), for these reasons:

  • Breathing problems (which include asthma attacks), and not headaches, typically react more to sulfites;
  • Red wine is most likely to be the trigger, however many sweeter white wines contain considerably more sulfites than red wines, because they have a much higher sugar content;
  • Numerous other foodstuffs contain sulfites, so these headaches should not be particular to any red wine.

A few allergy experts think that tannins are responsible for the severe headaches. The Harvard Health Letter noted,

“Some controlled experiments show that tannins cause the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Fairly high levels of this serotonin can cause headaches, which may well be the cause for the RWH in people who already suffer from migraines.”

Somehow the experiments fail to explain why it is that people get headaches from red wine who are not susceptible to migraines, or why people don’t similarly suffer from the high tannin levels in tea and chocolate.

Winemakers use sulfites during the winemaking process to prevent the wine from oxidising, helping to keep it clean and fresh for longer. When a wine is allowed to come into contact with oxygen for a long period of time, it will oxidise and spoil immediately, ultimately turning into vinegar. It’s unlikely that sulfites are the only culprit, but as many white wines contain larger amounts than reds, they don’t generally seem to cause a reaction.

Research from 30 years ago suggests that prostaglandins may be to blame for these headaches. Prostaglandins are substances that contribute to pain and are blocked easily by drugs that inhibit prostaglandin synthetase, i.e. aspirin, and even Acetaminophen and Ibruprofen.

The majority of researchers believe that one or more of the remaining suspects to be the cause of most red wine headaches. These include tannins, histamines, tryamines, as well as prostaglandins. Histamines and tryamines are by-products of a secondary fermentation in red wine, resulting in amine quantities up to two hundred percent higher in red wine than in white.

Excessive wine drinking can cause almost anyone to get a headache, but for some folk, drinking just a minute amount of wine will bring on a nasty migraine, combined with nausea and flushing. In order to minimise the chance of getting an RWH, just sample a glass of a certain red, and if you suffer within 15 to 20 minutes, obviously don’t drink that wine. If you are a sufferer, reduce the risk by lowering your intake first, and remember to go for the best quality red wine you can afford. Cheaper wines tend to be less stable, although not always the case, and therefore could contain more sulfur dioxide.

3 Reasons why sulfur dioxide is used in wine

  1. As a prevention for bacterial growth.
  2. As a protection agent for the wine against oxygen.
  3. To bind to various nasty aroma compounds, like acetaldehyde.

If you try to find wine without any sulfites when shopping, good luck! Sulfites are a natural by-product from the winemaking process, so all wine contains at least small amounts. Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is not a bad substance, but used incorrectly or excessively, it can be disastrous for a wine, and not great for your health. But, without it winemakers could not make good wines and wine would not age so well.

In the end it comes down to the usual addage – drink in moderation to gain all the benefits; overdo it, and you may suffer in any number of ways.

Leave a Reply