Many people find themselves in the unfortunate situation where getting together with friends over a glass (or two) of wine leads to headaches. Because of the common belief that red wines cause headaches for one reason or another, people often blame red wine, often without thinking too hard about what they had really drunk the night before.
So are red wines really to blame for headaches? It’s possible, but the answer is complicated, and the common answers aren’t always accurate. Here are some of the possible causes of headaches related to red wine, and the best way to avoid them in the future.
The Sulfite Myth
One thing to get out of the way right away is dismissing the myth that sulfites in wine cause red wine headache. Although there is a very small number of people who are susceptible to sulfites, the level of sulfites in wine is relatively low compared to some other types of foods, such as dried fruit or preserved lunchmeats. If these foods don’t give you a headache, then sulfites are probably not to blame.
Besides, sulfites are higher in white wine than red, so they’re not the cause of headaches if you’re more prone to them drinking red wine than white.
There’s Alcohol in Your Wine
Shocker, I know. But it bears repeating, because the most common cause of wine-related headaches is probably the most straightforward: alcohol. If you get headaches from drinking wine, it’s probably because you consumed more alcohol than you should have and didn’t drink enough water with it.
But if alcohol’s in all wine, how could this account for your red wine headaches? Simple: red wines tend to have higher alcohol levels than white. With the same size glasses, you could be getting 25% more alcohol if you’re drinking common red wines than common white wines. So if you’re fine drinking two glasses of white, but two glasses of red gives you a headache, try drinking just one and a half glasses of red, or look for lower-alcohol reds (they definitely exist). And, as always, make sure you’re well hydrated when you’re drinking.
Testing Your Tannin Tolerance
One substance that is definitely higher in red wine than white and could be responsible for headaches is tannins. Tannins are found in the skin, stem, and seed of the grape. As a result, much more tannin gets into red wines than white. This isn’t all bad: tannins are responsible for some of the purported health benefits of drinking red wine, but they can cause headaches in some people because they can cause vasodilation—the expansion of blood vessels, which puts pressure on the brain.
Tannins are also found in tea, especially black tea, so if tea gives you headaches, then you know you’re sensitive to tannins. However, you could still be sensitive, even if your afternoon tea doesn’t give you headaches. To test your sensitivity, it’s a good idea to brew a black tea much longer than recommended using boiling water. This extracts more of the tannins than usual—that’s why it’s so bitter—so it should give you a gauge of your sensitivity. If there’s still no headache, then you’re not sensitive to tannins.
Tyramines and Migraine
Red wine has also been flagged as a migraine trigger because it contains tyramines. Tyramines are present in many kinds of aged foods, including cheeses, dried or smoked meats, soy sauce, tofu and other soybean products, chocolate, and yogurt.
Tyramine is also found in many beers, especially those that are bottle conditioned. Some beer varieties (like lambics) are also high in tyramine. Tyramine is a likely culprit if any of these other foods and drinks also causes headaches for you.
But do tyramines cause headaches in people who don’t get migraines? Some people can experience elevated blood pressure after consuming tyramines along with taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI), a class of medications that includes phenelzine and some other antidepressants that are less commonly prescribed now. Hypertension can cause headaches, so it may be a good idea to avoid these foods if you’re taking an MAOI.
Prost to Prostaglandins
Prostaglandins are an inflammatory compound that is commonly found in red wine. These are lipids (fats) that also carry signals to your cells, triggering an inflammatory response. Inflammation causes headaches as well as other effects.
Some people are more sensitive to prostaglandins than others, so this could be a cause of red wine headaches. One way to test this is to try taking an over-the-counter pain medication (like ibuprofen or acetaminophen) before drinking to see if this helps.
However, this is not recommended as a long-term solution, because they need to be processed by your body using the same mechanisms that process alcohol: the liver and the kidneys. Acetaminophen is particularly hard on your liver and should not normally be consumed with alcohol.
Boo! Hiss! Histamines!
Histamines are commonly found in wine, especially red wine, and they can be responsible for a wide range of allergic-type responses. This can include a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, and, yes, headaches. In relatively rare circumstances, histamines in red wine can even cause an asthma-type response.
You might think that taking an antihistamine before consuming wine could help with this, but the research is mixed. You might give it a try, but, again, this doesn’t make for a good long-term solution. It’s never good to get into a routine where you’re popping pills before drinking.
Give up the Headaches, Not the Wine
So if you get headaches when you drink red wine, does it mean you have to give it up? Not at all! Red wine is a very broad category, and the wines have a huge variety among them. The grapes, the press, the fermentation, the aging—all these can cause a dramatic increase or decrease in the levels of these various headache-causing compounds.
Don’t give up your quest to find the perfect red wine for you. Instead, you should intensify it, trying many different styles and vineyards. Soon, you’ll find the perfect wine, one whose taste you love, and that doesn’t give you an annoying headache.
At Applejack Wine and Spirits, we have a tremendous variety of wines that may be your new, favorite, headache-free red. You’re not the first person we’ve helped navigate toward wines that are low in tannins or alcohol, and we can save you time in the search. All you have to do is ask.