How to Avoid the Dreaded Red Wine Headache

Two glasses of red wine on a rustic table in front of a platter of cold meats.
Natalia Van Doninck / Shutterstock

For many people, a glass of wine is both a delicious treat and the bane of their existence. If you know the all too common "red wine headache", this is what causes it and how to prevent it.

What are the causes of red wine headaches?

While some wine-related headaches are just an ordinary hangover, this is not always the case. Some people experience them quite often when they drink red wine, even in small amounts. The phenomenon is so common, it is often called a red wine headache (RWH), and extensive research has been done on the issue.

Unfortunately, no absolute cause has been discovered, but several possible culprits have been identified.

sulfites

You may have heard that sulfites cause RWH, but it's actually very unlikely. Sulfites exist naturally in grapes and, generally, they are also added to wine as a preservative to extend its shelf life. While about 1% of the population is allergic to and reacts to sulfites, these people tend to experience respiratory problems, not headaches.

Still not convinced? Well, consider that white wine actually contains more sulfites than red. In addition, foods like dried fruits and salted meats and other drinks, like canned sodas, contain even higher amounts of sulfites than white wine.

So if you don't have a headache when you drink canned white wine or soda, or when you eat the aforementioned foods, the sulfites are not to blame.

tannins

Another theory points to the tannins. This compound is found in the skin of grapes. The tannins give red wine its bitter taste and also cause a feeling of dryness in the mouth. Although tannins contain antioxidant properties, they also stimulate the production of serotonin in the brain which, in large doses, can cause headaches.

The grape skin is not used to produce white wine, so it makes sense that headaches do not happen until after a few glasses of red.

However, high doses of tannins are also found in tea, chocolate and soy products. Unless you also find yourself running into the medicine cabinet after having chocolate or sipping your favorite afternoon tea, chances are something else headache.

Histamine and Tyramine

It has been suggested that histamine and tyramine are the most likely culprits of RWH. When a person is allergic, their body naturally releases histamine when it is triggered by the allergen. This causes inflammation and dilation of the blood vessels, which are the main precursors of headaches.

People who tend to suffer from RWH more often may have an enzyme deficiency that prevents their bodies from successfully metabolizing histamine, which results in higher amounts of the compound in their blood. What is worse is that alcohol alone can increase the level of histamine in the body. This means that the unlucky ones who lack this very useful enzyme cannot really avoid headaches when they drink alcohol. Life can sometimes be cruel.

Another potential culprit is tyramine, which is a byproduct of the fermentation process. This amino acid constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure, which usually leads to headaches. People prone to migraines have trouble breaking it down.

Since other fermented products also contain large amounts of tyramine, these people are likely to suffer from headaches when they eat things like cheese, yogurt, yeast and soy sauce, as well than products like coconuts, avocados and eggplant rich in amino acids. .

This is not the news that wine and cheese lovers want to hear.

Tips to prevent red wine headaches

A woman smelling a glass of red wine with her eyes closed.
stockfour / Shutterstock

Before pouring the rest of your beloved red wine down the drain and wondering how you are going to continue living, you may be happy to know that there are ways to prevent unbearable RWH. While none of these guarantee your headache, it could improve your Vino experience.

Before you head to your next wine tasting or dinner, try some of these preventative methods, so you can hopefully avoid a horrible RWH:

  • hydrate: Alcohol is a diuretic (i.e. it makes you pee a lot), which can lead to dehydration, which can cause headaches. Since red wine has a higher alcohol content than white, it is imperative to drink enough water. For each glass of wine, drink eight ounces of water.
  • Avoid fermented foods: Yes, pairing cheese with wine is delicious, but it's best to avoid it if you drink red wine because of its high histamine and tyramine content. To minimize your risk of discomfort, opt for unfermented foods and snacks instead and enjoy your wine like royalty.
  • Avoid sugar: No cheese or dessert? Yes, it sounds pretty dark. The problem is that your body needs a large amount of water to process the combination of sugar and alcohol. When there is not enough water, your body will start to deplete the liquid you so badly need in other areas, like your head, which will eventually hurt you. the head. If you don't want to skip dessert or bread, go for a dry red, as they tend to have less sugar.
  • Stick to high quality wines: Not only do they taste better, they are also healthier. Cheap wines tend to have more alcohol, residual sugar, sulfur and fining agents, like gelatin, all of which contribute to RWH. These things are also more likely to increase the release of prostaglandins in your body, which are lipids linked to inflammation and pain. The next time you go to the liquor store, bite the bullet and grab that more expensive red you've always looked at – your bank account may not thank you, but your head certainly will.
  • Opt for lighter reds: Because full-bodied wines contain higher amounts of tannins, opt for lighter reds that might taste just as good, but minimize your chances of having a headache. Pinot Noir, Barbera, Sangiovese and Rioja are all great options to consider. Try several until you find one that's right for you. Headaches happen about 15 minutes after the first two sips, so if you still enjoy life after drinking half a glass, you know you've found the right one.
  • Take an antihistamine or pain relieverr beforehand: Many people discover that if they take aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen about an hour before drinking red wine, they don't hurt to the head later. While it can be effective, it can also be dangerous. Some of these products can have dangerous side effects, including liver damage, when combined with alcohol. It is always best to do your research or speak to your doctor first.

Despite the painful aftertaste, it is sometimes very difficult to resist a good glass of red wine. While there is no foolproof way to avoid RWH, if you take the right preventative measure, it could help you in your quest to get the most out of your red wine. Remember to stay hydrated and drink in moderation as much as possible to minimize your chances of having alcohol-related headaches or, worse still, A hangover.

With New Years Eve approaching, it's going to be difficult to follow these tips, but if you test some of these tips ahead of time, it could give you a way to welcome the new decade with a big smile on your face – and no headache. Cheers!

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