What is the culprit in red wine that causes headache or migraine, or as it is sometimes known “Red Wine Headache” (RWH), after a glass or more of this lovely beverage? Is it the red wine in its entirety, the sulfites in the wine or perhaps even the tannin?

The RWH is said to be a misunderstood phenomenon – try telling that to any sufferer – but there are so many theories about it’s causes, yet fairly few facts to back them up. One thing for sure is that it is some compound within the red wine itself.

What are the likely causes of Red Wine Headaches?
Compounds within grape skins are likely causes, these can be either naturally occurring or be a product of the fermentation itself. Yet the blame for RWH nearly always comes back to sulfites that are added to the wine during the winemaking process. But there are other possible causes:

  1. Tannins could well be responsible for some of the headaches. It is these flavanoids in the wine that make one’s mouth pucker that could be to blame. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter is shown to be released by tannins, and high levels of serotonin may cause headaches to people who also are migraine headache sufferers. But why do we not hear about headaches caused by tea, soy or chocolate, these all contain tannins?
  2. What about histamines? The histamine level in red wine is up to twice as high as it is in white wine. Therefore anyone with an histamine allergy may be deficient in a particular enzyme. The combination of the alcohol and that deficiency could (although not proven) be yet another cause of the headaches.
  3. A third idea is that prostaglandins may be the root cause of RWH. These are substances that contribute to pain.
  4. A fourth cause, and often the one most drinkers blame is sulfites. Sufferers who are sensitive to sulfites may not get a headache at all, but may experience an allergic reaction.Sulfites are remarkably powerful in their task as anti-oxidants. They are known to increase the symptoms of asthma in a small number of asthmatics while some sufferers may experience difficulties when eating food or drink containing sulfites. The inhalation of sulfite vapours can also be extremely irritating.

Why is there a need to add Sulfites to Wine?

Sulfites are added for a variety of reasons, these include:

  • The control of bacterial growth before, during and after the fermentation of the wine.
  • Slows down the oxidation or browning of the juice/wine. This ensures a good, clean sample will not be affected at all.

N.B.Many sweet wines require more sulfites than red wines. The tannin in the red is effective in acting as an antioxidant.

One thing is for sure, people who suffer from RWH want to know how to cope with the problem. Prevention is one answer, but a bit drastic to wine lovers. Another is to take antihistamine tablets like Clarityn or an aspirin to help cease prostaglandin production.

My recommendation to minimise the chance of getting a red wine headache is to sample just one glass of a particular red, and if you don’t suffer within 15 or 20 minutes, stick to that wine. The jury is still out on what causes red wine headaches, so if you are a sufferer, why not reduce the risk by reducing your intake first and always try the best quality red wine you can.

A final thought. Whatever the cause of RWH, if you suffer from a nasty headache several hours after a long night out, you haven’t got RWH – you’ve got a hangover!