Wine headaches and how to prevent them

It feels like a giant hand crushing my head.

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You’ve just had a glass of wine with a pleasant meal but it is ruined when you are stricken with a splitting headache. If your dinner companion is not the cause, we blame the wine. In fact this phenomenon is common enough to get its own moniker, the “RWH Syndrome” (The “RWH” standing for “Red Wine Headache”).

Are sulphites the culprit?

Very often sulphites, rather unfairly, are blamed for the wine headache. “Sulphites” refers to a family of sulfur containing compounds that are used in food as a preservative and in wine, like in many dried fruits, sulphur-di-oxide is used.
All wines have them, though in different proportions, even if the label does not say so, as this is dependent on government labeling rules.  White wines generally have more sulphites than red wines and sweet wines have the most . (There goes the argument that sulphites in red wine give me a headache and nothing happens when I drink white wine). Sulphites are an anti-septic and anti-oxidant and without them, wines will have a shorter shelf life, will not travel well and will not age well. Without sulphites, even one bad grape could lead to the whole batch of bad wine bottles. Also the bottles will have to be stored at optimal temperature and light to ensure that the color and flavor do not change. There are a few vineyards that have made significant progress towards minimizing the use of sulphites through their viti-cultural processes and there are a very few that make wine with “no detectible sulphites”, but in my opinion (humble though it may be) they would not be my first choice.

My head hurts

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This whole “blame the Sulphite” movement probably started from studies that showed that it may cause breathing difficulties in asthmatics and possibly people with salicylate sensitivity (or aspirin sensitivity). Other symptoms include sneezing, swelling of the throat, and hives.  But other studies have shown that less than 1% of the population suffers from sulphite sensitivity. The upshot of this is that researchers do not believe that sulphites cause headaches. Let me qualify this though. If you suffer from migraines, the sulphites in wine may trigger them but otherwise, the poor sulphites seem to be blameless. A good home test for sulphite sensitivity would be the ability to eat dried mangos and apricots treated with sulpur-di-oxide without any adverse effects. If you feel that sulphites are bothering you, you can use an organic wine, something made by Frey Vineyards.

Now I can hear you say in a nasty tone, “Then how come I get a headache after drinking wine huh?” If, you dont think it was the sulphites, read on, you might find another cause for it.

I killed the bottle

Why did I drink so much!

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The biggest reason would be over-indulgence.  Hey, if you upend a bottle by yourself, a RWH or just WH is a distinct possibility. This makes a strong case for having a companion in your wine drinking.

Amines, what the hell is that?

Ok, you eliminated over-indulgence, then it is most likely the amines (Histamine and Tyramine).
The amines are naturally found in wine. Histamine dilates blood vessels and makes them more permeable. This can lead to runny noses, stuffiness and headaches. Tyramine does the same but first it constricts them and some researchers think they are the largest contributor to this. In studies, it has been noted that taking a Claritin or similar over the counter medication an hour before drinking seems to eliminate or atleast minimize these problems.

Maybe it was the Cab with the tannins?

The other big culprit is probably the tannins (generally found in appreciable quantities in Red wine). Tannins are also naturally found in wood, especially in oak.
Most wine is aged in oak barrels, so logically the tannins found within the oak are going to be transferred into the wine.
One possible link is the fact that tannins bind starches together, and prevent these starches from being used by the body to produce serotonin. Serotonin is used to dilate and constrict blood vessels in the brains. When there is a serotonin deficiency, these vessels tend to constrict, thereby reducing blood flow to the brain, which will cause a migraine.

How to avoid wine headaches

Stop crying my dear, the pain will go away.

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The best ways then are to comfortably enjoy wine are to:

  • Drink in moderation (I do not follow this advice always but DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO),
  • Be hydrated – a glass of water for every glass of wine would be a nice start
  • An over the counter medicine like Claritin an hour before drinking (But please check with your doctor for your specific suitability before doing this.)
  • Drink low-tannin wines.

In any case, enjoy your food and wine as Omar Khayyam said( If he did not, he should have)



A bottle of wine,
A beautiful garden and
Thou my beloved……


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