Listen, we all drink too much wine sometimes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, we’re talking about when you have a couple of sips of red and you start to feel a headache coming on right away. Why do we get that awful red wine headache?
Well, the experts can't seem to come to a consensus, but sulfites are the current scapegoat. We’re here to dispel that myth once and for all and give you some other potential culprits and some ideas about how to avoid your next red wine headache.
SULFITES DON'T CAUSE RED WINE HEADACHES
First off, what are sulfites anyway? They are naturally occurring (and also lab produced) chemical compounds containing sulfite ions. Many foods we eat contain sulfites including eggs, salmon, asparagus, peanuts, black tea, jams and jellies (it’s in the pectin), onions, garlic, lettuce, tomatoes, lemon juice in the little lemon-shaped jar. The list goes on and on. Beer and cider also contain sulfites and, yes, so does wine. But far less than we’ve been led to believe. And the kicker? Sulfite allergies are a serious thing and they don’t look like a headache. The actual reaction is shortness of breath and wheezing. Less than 1% of the population is affected by this condition – nearly always people with chronic asthma.
So why are there sulfites in your wine? Well, sulfites occur naturally in wine as part of the aging process, and are sometimes added to help preserve the wine – to keep that $100 bottle from turning into vinegar. Some organic/biodynamic/natural winemakers add as little extra sulfates as possible, but even if your winemaker uses added sulfates, it’s not a bad thing and the amount you’re getting is insignificant. Your breakfast eggs have more.
Also, white wines have higher levels of sulfites than red wines and you never hear anyone complaining about a white wine headache.
So cross sulfites off your bad list. It’s not what’s giving you a headache.
RED WINE HEADACHES ARE NOT BECAUSE OF TANNINS
Alright then, what about tannins? Tannins come from the skins, seeds and stems of grapes and potentially the oak barrels used in aging. All grapes have tannins, but red wines concentrate those tannins during fermentation because they have a longer maceration time and because the skins are left on, unlike the process for making white wines.
Tannins used to get blamed as the culprit for the RWH, and they do have the potential to affect serotonin levels, but unless you’re the unfortunate lottery winner of a rare case of extreme sensitivity to even the tiniest fluctuations in your serotonin, tannins aren’t the problem. And besides, those poor souls get migraines, not red wine headaches.
The thing that’s really off about tannins being the cause of your red wine headache is that lots of foods contain tannins in the same amount or larger quantities than red wine: black teas, coffee, grapes (did we need to say that?) strawberries, blueberries, apricots, peaches and lots of frequently used herbs like mint, basil and rosemary. Most of us eat a lot of these and we never hear people talk about blueberry headaches.
Tannins also have positive benefits and shouldn’t be getting the bad rap that they do. They are anti-carcinogenic, antioxidant and anti-mutagenic (things that cause mutations like radioactive substances, x-rays, ultraviolet radiation and certain chemicals). They have healing properties for wounds and inflammation and they stabilize blood pressure.
So that checks tannins off your bad list as well.
What the heck is tyramine? Tyramine is an amino acid and it’s also a product of fermentation. It, like tannins, have been linked to triggering migraines because of its potential to affect blood pressure. For people who can’t break down tyramine, it could be an issue. More likely, for people who can’t break it down, the issue isn’t the red wine, but what they’re eating with it. Many foods we love to pair with reds are also high in tyramine. Foods like lovely aged cheeses including Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan. The creamy cheeses we love like Camembert, blue, Stilton, Gorgonzola. The cured meats found in most charcuterie boards like salami, pepperoni, sausage. The little side snacks that go so well with wine: olives, pickles, caviar, nuts, apricots and citrus fruits. Caffeine is also high in tyramine, so if you drink lots of coffee one day and then sit down to appies of cheese, olives and a glass of red, you may get hit with a red wine headache.
Tyramine can stay on your list, sort of.
RED WINE HEADACHES AND HISTAMINES
Our fourth, and favorite to win the red-wine-headache-culprit contest, is histamine. It’s a neurotransmitter and is part of our inflammatory immune response system. Grape skins, along with lots of other foods including those aged cheeses we talked about, eggplant, spinach, fish, the cured meats we all love to snack on while sipping, dried fruits, avocados and shellfish, all contain histamine. White wine is made without the grape skin, so it has a lower histamine content than its sister reds, which are made (as we learned earlier) with the skins on. If you are histamine sensitive, and you drink your red wine while eating the above foods, you might get a headache. Note that all of those foods contain more histamines than a glass of red wine, so it’s probably not the histamines in the wine that’s actually getting to you.
Histamine reaction is the most likely reason we get red wine headaches. A lot of people have a histamine sensitivity and when you couple that with the possibility that many of us could also have a sensitivity to tyramine, and that most foods that contain one, contain the other, the likelihood is that your RWH is caused by a perfect storm of mixing just the right things at just the right time. Stress, lack of sleep, lack of food, dehydration, too much caffeine, too much histamine and too much tyramine – all these things contribute to a potential headache. The wine at the end of the day may just be the last straw and not really the cause at all.
So what to do? As anyone who’s had a food allergy can tell you, it’s a process of elimination and testing different combinations. Try your reds without cheese and aged meats. Notice if you’ve had a lot of coffee on a day when you also get a red wine headache. Try reds that have thinner skins like pinot noir, malbec, merlot and sémillon. Test out the thicker skinned reds like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, syrah and petite sirah and see if you notice a difference.
Many articles will tell you to take an antihistamine before drinking red wine. Just don’t. They don’t mix well and it’s probably not going to help you that much. Better to pop a B complex, drink lots of water, or make sure you eat (just maybe not histamine and tyramine rich foods) while you drink. Or, you could just pour yourself a glass of white wine instead. We like our bright, crisp, citrus forward and dry BOXT Profile Number One.