Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wine headaches?!

A number of people experience wine headaches, often associated with drinking red wines (then called "red wine headache". The cause is typically attributed, often wrongly, to sulfites.

Granted, some folks are allergic to sulfites, and it is can be a serious condition.

Let's examine the situation around wine.

First, sulfites tend to be more aggressively required in white wines than red wines, due to the preserving influence of tannins, polyphenols and other substances in red wine. So, if you find your wine headaches more regularly associated with red wines than white wines, start suspecting something other than sulfites.

Also, although sulfites are typically found in wine, they are also found in high levels in a number of other common foods: dried fruit, pickles, sliced luncheon meats, flavored gelatin, for example. So if these foods do not give you headaches, but wine does, once again, begin suspecting something other than sulfites.

What to suspect? Well, I am definitely not a physician, so take anything here as consumer hypotheses and not medical advice. And there is not a great deal of consensus on this issue.
Among the potential culprits put forth are tannins, histamines, prostaglandins and biogenic amines.

All of this is fine, but what to do about it? One of the most productive set of suggestions from folks struggling with the problem is simply this: try a few different styles of wine till you find one that doesn't bring on a headache. (With a half glass of wine, the wine headache should hit within about 15 minutes. )

If and when you find a wine that suits your taste that doesn't bring on a headache, seek other wines from that grape and region. Suggestions have been made that less tannic red wines, say beaujolais or pinot noir, may be most suitable.

Another suggestion I've seen involves drinking a glass of black tea before and between glasses of wine, to reduce inflammatory effects that may induce headaches.

April, 2008, update: If you're inclined to dragging along a suitcase-sized device to assess your sensitivity to a glass of wine at your next meal, these folks are pilot-testing a biogenic amine-tester that may be just the thing you're looking for!


  1. My ex is an oenologist and claims that mustard grows in the vineyards. Mustard pollen is highly allergenic, and causes the headaches. Since red wine requires leaving the grapeskins on, it makes sense that the headaches are associated with red wine rather than white. Although I sort of incline towards the tannin theory, myself, having suffered headaches from ingesting black teas.

  2. Wow. That's a wholly new theory. I've heard that regional differences exist for which regions' red wines cause headaches, so it would be fascinating to know if mustard grass doesn't grow in the less troublesome regions.

    Meanwhile, I guess you'd best avoid the so-called black tea remedy!