Red Wine Headaches

By Ryan Snyder

What actually causes the infamous red wine headache? No one knows for sure. Researchers have had good leads, but have been unable to prove that the headaches are definitely caused by sulfites, tannins, histamines or tyramines. So, let’s take a look at what the researchers have found:

In the early 1980’s, it was commonly believed that sulfites were the cause of red wine headaches. Sulfites are natural byproducts of yeast that are used by most winemakers for their antioxidant and anti-microbial properties and are added to help the wine have a clean fermentation process. It is a common misperception that red wines contain more sulfites than white wines when the opposite is actually true, as sweet white wines require more sulfites because of their sugary content.

Sulfites are also known as wonderful preservatives, and can be found in dried fruits, lunchmeats and cheeses. Sulfites can cause allergic reactions, but because of the higher sulfite content in dried fruits, dried apricots and raisins will give someone with this type of sensitivity a stronger headache than red wine would. This finding has led researchers to stray away from their original belief that sulfites were the primary cause of headaches.

Histamines have also taken quite a bit of blame for causing red wine headaches. Histamines are compounds found in plant and animal tissues that cause an allergic reaction in humans. They stimulate gastric secretion and cause dilation of capillaries, constriction of bronchial smooth muscle and decreased blood pressure.

Histamines are found in many food products, but mostly in fermented foods and beverages, and are more common in red wines than in white wines. While histamines are found in grape skins, researchers believe that they are not found in high enough volumes to be considered problematic. According to a study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in February of 2001, there was no difference between the results of drinking low- and high-histamine wines in the test subjects. However, we are still waiting for other research groups to provide a sufficient analysis of histamine effects from red wine consumption.

Tyramines are commonly found in many foods, such as cheeses, figs, avocados and chocolate, as well as in robust red wines and specifically Chianti. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is a liver and brain enzyme that is used to clean up amines in the body. In the liver, one of the functions of MAO is to inactivate tyramine and change it into a harmless acetic acid. Otherwise, the tyramine can cause a dangerous increase in blood pressure.

Hormones released during stress and PMS inhibit MAO activity, as does alcohol. Researchers have found that people who have sluggish MAO activity or are taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (the base of some antidepressants) may not be able to inactivate the influx of tyramine, which could cause the red wine headache.

Tannins have recently taken most of the blame for causing red wine headaches. Tannins are natural defense mechanisms in plants that create a bitter, astringent taste which induces a negative response when consumed. In wine, these plant polyphenols are derived from the grape skins and provide the flavanoids in wine that give you the dry, puckery mouth sensation. They’re not only found in wine, but also in cheese, nuts, chocolate and tea. The tea industry has recently been touting the healthy effects of antioxidants provided by the tannins.

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. Tannins are also naturally found in wood, especially in oak. Most wine is aged in oak, so logically the tannins found within the oak are going to be transferred into the wine.

However, something that has not been studied is the difference between tannin transference from American oak and French oak. We know that American oak leaves stronger impressions in wines and that wines stored in French oak barrels receive more subtle barrel flavors. Why is this important? Because many people have claimed to be receive a migraine every time they drink American red wine, while they are able to drink most French and Italian red wines without any ill effects.

Many of us love red wine and wish we could drink it, but know that the debilitating migraine we’ll suffer the next day isn’t worth the temporary pleasure. But, obviously, this problem is far from being solved, and we can't wait any longer. So, what we winegeeks need to do is band together and attempt to determine what the problem is by performing our own experiments. To do this, each of us who is affected by red wine headaches must begin recording the wines we taste and the affects that each wine has on us. (And we must not confuse a red wine headache with a hangover caused by overconsumption.) As we look over our records, we can determine which varietals and regions are problematic and which are safe.