Why do you get a headache after drinking red wine?
By SOPHIA F. GOTTFRIED
December 3, 2015
Love red wine but, alas, it doesn’t love you back? After drinking a glass, instead of feeling mellow, you feel a headache. Why? The answer, it turns out, is as complex as wine itself.
“There’s a whole debate about the [cause] of it,” said Dr. Damon Fellman of the Hackensack Neurology Group and associate director of neurology at Hackensack University Medical Center. The phenomenon is officially known as red wine headaches (RWH).
Sulfites, the sulfuric compounds that are both naturally produced during the fermentation process as well as often added to preserve wine, have long been accused as the perpetrator of RWH. However, white wines contain more sulfites than red wines. And beer, cheese and dried fruits can also contain much more sulfites than wine.
“A whole lot of people are worried about sulfur, and they shouldn’t be worried at all,” said Gary C. Pavlis, Rutgers professor and Garden State Wine Growers executive director.
For those who remain convinced that sulfites are the culprits or who simply want to consume less of them, there are wine producers that make wines with no added sulfites or low levels of sulfites.
A likelier suspect for red wine headaches is histamines, biological compounds found in grape skins that are 20 to 200 percent more likely to be in red wines than in white wines. In some people, a sensitivity or allergy to histamines may cause a headache. According to Francis Mastrangelo, wine consultant for Bottle King stores, “Red wine is fermented with the skins [whereas white wine is not], and the histamines come with the skins. If you have allergies, you might be more sensitive to red wine.”
Both Pavlis and Fellman suggest trying an antihistamine such as Zyrtec or Allegra before drinking a glass of red wine to see if histamines may be a trigger.
Another possible cause for those red wine headaches? Tannin, an element found in the skins, stems and seeds of grapes. Because red wines are made with the skins on, tannin, like histamines, is in most red wines and is scarcely found in white wines. Tannin, which is also present in high levels in tea and dark chocolate, makes wine taste dry and gives it texture.
However, tannin levels differ widely. “Different red grapes have different levels of tannin,” Mastrangelo explains. “A grape like pinot noir is thin-skinned and has less tannin, whereas a thicker-skinned grape like cabernet sauvignon will have more.”
Still another possible factor for those headaches: poor wine quality. “If you’re drinking a cheap wine, they’re probably adding everything under the sun into the barrel,” says Ken Flaherty, certified sommelier and owner of The Happy Corkscrew Wine Tastings in Hoboken. When making cheaper wine, winemakers often use less desirable grapes and grape parts like stems and seeds, which have more tannin. Also tossed in is lots of extra sugar and preservatives, all of which could cause headaches.
Says Mastrangelo, “If you’re buying a bottle that costs $1.99, it’s just like buying [really cheap] food, the more industrially processed it probably is.”
And, for all wine lovers, there’s one culprit that can cause headaches no matter the color of the wine: dehydration. The much-prescribed solution: drink lots of water with your wine.
If just thinking about these complex potential causes is already giving you a headache, there’s always white wine. Drink that in abandon, though, and you’ll surely be feeling a headache the next morning, too.