This is one of the most frequently asked questions we get from our visitors at the winery. Some swear it’s the sulfites while others think it’s the alcohol. So let’s have a look at some of the most common reasons people get a headache from red wine.
This is the number one suspect. Most people think that sulfites is the cause for our headaches. The truth is that the quantity of sulfites found in red or white wine is so little that it can affect only 1% of the general population and only 5% of the asthma sufferers.
Sulfite is added in wine because it has antioxidant and antiseptic properties. This means sulfite protects our wines from oxidation and microbial spoilage. Red wines need only a small quantity of sulfite because they contain more Tannins and Anthocyanins (found in grape skins, stems and pips) than white and rose wines. Tannins and Anthocyanins act as natural antioxidants. So if you are sensitive to sulfite that means you will also get a headache from white and rose wines.
A lot of food products such as prunes and raisins may contain 10x more sulfite than wine, so if you don’t get a headache from them then you are not sensitive to sulfites.
Biogenic amines (Histamine and tyramine) or the Phenols (Tannins and Anthocyanins)?
The following part is a bit tricky, some researchers’ consider biogenic amines responsible but others think that phenols are the real trigger.
We start with Biogenic amines. These are found in a lot of fermented foods such as cheese, sausages and wine. In general, red wines have more Histamine and Tyramine (biogenic amines) than white wines. In the former, these higher values are linked to skin contact and malolactic fermentation (secondary fermentation that helps “soften” red wines and reduce their acidity). White wines, in general, contain lower concentrations because they are not fermented with their grape skins.
Scientists suggest that people sensitive to these biogenic amines will have headaches. Histamine enlarges blood vessels while Tyramine first shrinks and then enlarges blood vessels which in turn increase the pressure in our head.
But several studies argue that the normal levels of histamine and tyramine found in red wines are below those that generally trigger a headache. This observation led some scientists unsatisfied and curious. In the end some researchers found out that Phenols (Tannins and Anthocyannins) might be the actual trigger for headaches.
Tannins and Anthocyanins offer protection to our wines but they seem to also participate in the creation of headaches. Phenols have the ability to suppress the action of PST (phenol sulfotransferase) an enzyme that removes toxic substances such as biogenic amines from our body. If PST is suppressed then the biogenic amines will increase. This in turn will trigger the production of serotonin that promotes the enlargement of blood vessels. Just like before this creates pressure in our head and eventually leads to a headache.
This is probably the most common cause for headaches. Wine might not have a lot of alcohol but it can still affect us the same way as other alcoholic drinks. One of the many problems caused by over consumption of alcohol is Dehydration.
Alcohol decreases the production of vasopressin an antidiuretic hormone. Antidiuretic because it reduces urination. If the above hormone is reduced then we will start urinating more, which means we will lose a lot of fluids fast and thus dehydrate our body. So whenever you drink a glass of wine drink a glass of water also.
If you keep digging into the red wine headache issue you will discover even more reasons. Most are related to peoples sensitivities towards certain substances. Some of them are found in wine and others are produced when wine is consumed. Nevertheless this does not mean we cannot enjoy wine, we just need to figure out which kind of wines we can tolerate. Try out several wines made with different winemaking methods. For example long skin contact (more tannins) reds vs short skin contact reds (less tannins), warm climate reds against cool climate reds or simply low alcohol wines vs high alcohol wines. This will help you slowly figure out which kind of wines affect you or not.
If you want us to answer more of your questions please leave your comment below.
If you wish to find out more about the above subject have a look into the following books: Wine Science Principles and Applications and Wine Chemistry and Biochemistry.