Tag Archives: sulfites in wine

Why Does American Wine Give Me Headaches?

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Question from Celine: When I travel in Europe I never get headaches from the wine but I do when I drink California wine at home. Why would that be? 

Reply: Hi, Celine. Thanks for writing! This is a very common question. 

People tend to blame their headaches on sulfites. They assume American winemakers use more chemicals than the Europeans do. But, science tells us that sulfites don’t cause headaches. Plus, all wines made, worldwide – added or note – and any variation in the percentage isn’t by country so much as by brand. So you can count the sulfites out. 

Some people get what’s known as the red wine headache, but no one has figured out the cause. There are those who think histamines might be a factor but lots of foods contain histamines, too. And those scientists who discount the theory say you’d more likely get a stuffy nose than a headache from histamines. Some think tannins might cause a histamine-like reaction which would mean red-wine headaches and no reaction to whites. 

Certain amino acids have been linked to migraines but there’s no definitive evidence.  

But, even if these things were the culprits, none of them vary significantly by country of origin. But there is one important component that varies quite a lot by region.

It’s the alcohol! And, of course if anything is likely to give you a headache, it’s a wee bit too much alcohol! 

Why would it vary by country? Well, it varies more by climate and, as it happens, most European regions fall into what we refer to as a cool-climate situations. In the relatively cool growing conditions the grapes get ripe, but don’t reach the sugar levels you might expect in a warm-climate situation. And, the sugar determines the alcohol. 

So, if the winemaker in Burgundy picks his grapes at 22% sugar, he can expect about 11.5 to 12% alcohol. And when the winemaker here, in sunny Napa Valley, picks his Cabernet at 26% sugar, he’ll wind up around 14%. I must confess that you’ll see local wines and those from other warm-climate situations that are even hight than that. When you split a bottle of wine over lunch, that difference can, literally, go to your head. Alcohol is, without a doubt, the most likely suspect when it comes to wine headaches.

What to do? Aside from drinking less wine, try drinking more water. They say a glass of water for every glass of wine prevents dehydration which might help ward off your headache.  Something to keep in mind any time you drink wine, here at home or abroad. 

While they haven’t figured out the cause of red-wine headaches, researchers say that if you take aspirin or ibuprofen before you drink the wine it blocks the headache reaction in a high percentage of people. Tylenol won’t work and taking aspirin after the wine is too late to block the reaction. But it might give you some relief. 

It’s smart to check the alcohol level on the label before your server opens the wine. I always do that when I order Zinfandel because sometimes it’s up around 15 or 16%– yikes!

I hope that helps!

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Wine and Headaches

Headache

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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Organic vs. Organically-Grown Wine

Confused by the labels? Join the crowd! Here’s a brief explanation: 

 

How do you feel about it? Is the organic label important to you? 

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Why Do I Get Wine Headaches?

Question from Jill: Why do I get wine headaches?

Reply: Hi, Jill. I’m sorry to hear about that. I’m no physician and very little is understood about this, but it seems the last thing any of us choose to blame is the most likely culprit – the alcohol!

However, there are other possible causes:

Red Wine Headache Syndrome: If you only react to red wine, you may be 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.

Bottom line: They don’t know. But, what they’ve learned is that taking NSAIDS, like aspirin or ibuprofen, before drinking red wine blocks the reaction for many people. If you take it after, it’s too late.

Some doctors theorize that it has to do with prostaglandins, which some people can’t metabolize. Others blame histamines, but there are many foods that are higher in histamines than wine. Still others point to other amines, like tyramines. Continue reading

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What About Sulfites in Wine?

Question from Michael: You said organic wine doesn’t have added sulfites. Why does wine have sulfites anyway?

Reply: Hi, Michael. Thanks for writing! The post on organic wine brought up a lot of questions about sulfites. Maybe it’s not the tastiest subject, but let’s take a look.

Lots of people have the impression that adding sulfites is a recent practice, initiated by American producers. But, it’s the labeling laws that are new – not the sulfites. And, many believe that the Europeans don’t add sulfites because for a long time when you went to France or Italy on vacation you didn’t see the sulfite warning like you did here at home. But, European laws have finally caught up with America.

Adding sulfur to wine and food as an anti-oxidant and anti-microbial goes back for centuries. Even the Romans were said to use sulfur to seal their barrels and jugs. So, it’s a preservative. Continue reading

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