Wine and Headaches


Photo courtesy of Debbie C on Flickr

Question from Emily: Why does wine cause headaches? Is it the sulfites?

Reply: Hi, Emily. Thanks for writing! I’m no physician and very little is understood about this, but one thing that’s become clear is that it’s not the sulfites. 

Sulfites: Lots of people swear up and down that sulfites are the cause, but science says otherwise. If you’re convinced that sulfites are to blame, try eating some brightly colored, dried fruit (the bright color indicates a high level of sulfites). If you can eat them without any effect, then sulfites aren’t the issue. That’s not to say that sulfites are harmless. Asthmatics need to be very careful about wine, fruit juice, processed foods and more.

Red Wine Headache Syndrome: If you only react to red wine, you’re a member of this not-so-small group of wine lovers. For some people, it takes only a small amount of red wine to set off a nasty headache that may last a very long time. It’s common enough that a great number of studies have been done. Medical researchers have tested their subjects on cheap and expensive wine, domestic and imported wine and it doesn’t make any difference.

There’s some helpful advice from these researchers, though. If you’re prone to red-wine headaches, try taking some aspirin or ibuprofen before drinking the wine (Tylenol doesn’t work.) They discovered that these drugs seem to block the reaction for many of their subjects.

Tannin: It’s possible that people who are prone to migraines might also react to tannin but it’s fuzzy science at this point.

Prostaglandins and amines: Some doctors theorize that the headaches have to do with prostaglandins, which some people can’t metabolize. Others blame point to other amines, like histamines, but there are many foods that are higher in histamines than wine.

Alcohol! It seems the last thing any of us choose to blame is the most likely culprit – the alcohol! If you get a headache or hangover after sharing a bottle of wine with friends, check the alcohol. The levels can vary significantly. The wildly popular Moscato wine is often below 10%. Napa Cab is often upwards of 14%. Are you a fan of red Zinfandel? It’s notoriously high in alcohol. 

Alcohol opens blood vessels and increases the blood flow to the skin. If the vessels in your nose and sinus areas swell, you may feel some pressure and get a headache. Shoot for lower alcohol wine, drink less or try a pain reliever if you think this might be what’s happening to you.  

TIP! If you’ve noticed that European wine doesn’t seem to get to you the way California wine does, compare the alcohols – European tend to be lower in alcohol than California wines dues to differences in climate. 

ANOTHER TIP! Great headache preventative: Drink a glass of water for each glass of wine; alcohol causes dehydration.

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2 responses to “Wine and Headaches

  1. Greetings– I came to your interesting blog from Snooth, where I really enjoyed your piece on flavor components. I favor the amine/histamine theory above.I started getting wine headaches about 10 years ago, after a good 20 years of no particular problem. At the time, I was big on the big reds, esp. good CA zins. I pretty much quit red wines in desperation– and on the plus side, rediscovered whites, esp Sancerre, rieslings and chenin blancs (and vintage cocktails, but that’s another conversation). After several years, I started trying reds again, and discovered that lots of Euro reds — generally older style, i.e. not New World-esque fruit-bombs– didn’t have the same effect on my head. One theory I developed was that it might be the oak in some wines which was the issue, specifically American oak vs. French (or other Euro oak); and quantity of oak. If I took a single sip of one of those cheap Aussie chards, which were laden with an oakiness which I suspect was from chips, I could count on a pounding headache over my right eyebrow within half an hour (and no, I never bought any of that plonk– it was generally placed in my hand by a kindly soul at a reception). Unoaked whites seemed not to do it, and when I cautiously tried a less oaky CA chard, I was usually safe. With reds, I’m always safer with a lightweight European (for some time, I thought it might be tannins, as you mention above)– either unoaked, or lightly oaked; and if it says "in new American oak" I leave it behind in the store!Pondering this with a wine guy at one of my pet stores, he noted that a lot of European wine may be aged in oak, but much larger barrels, and not obsessively "new"– so there’s not that oak overload we loved so much in the 80s.I think the oak issue may be the culprit in some folks’ reaction to brown liquors, too. I’ve found that I’m likelier to get a headache from a single brandy or whiskey cocktail than I am from gin, and the difference is OAK.It would be interesting to see some research on the different oak genuses, and their relative histamine content.Thanks for the great writing, and I’ll be checking in to see what you’re up to!

  2. Nancy Hawks Miller

    Hi, Maria. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I’m sorry <br/>about the headaches, but your comments are very interesting! I’ve <br/>never thought of oak before, but it certainly contributes a number of <br/>different compounds to the wine so who knows? Thanks for the kind <br/>words – I’m honored! Nancy

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