Science and Your Red Wine Headache

“I can’t drink red wine,” the person says. “I’m allergic to sulfites, and I get terrible headaches.” Heard it? Ever been told that European wines are safe to drink because they have no sulfites in them? Ever meet someone who would only drink organic wine because of their migraines?

This is a barely-restrained pet peeve of mine. I want everyone to be able to enjoy red wine, heaven knows, but come on now — as less than 1% of humanity is allergic to sulfites, and as an allergic reaction to sulfites results in anaphylactic shock, and as sweet white wine is just as sulfite-ridden as dry red wines….. I have a hard time scraping up any sincere faith in your alleged sulfite allergy, dear one.

A few other debunkings, as I brought up the issues: European wines also have sulfites in them; they just don’t have to say so. You see sulfite warnings on American wines because red wine headache lobbyists got regulation passed in 1986 to require wines that have sulfites in quantites of over 10 ppm to put “Contains sulfites” on the label.

Sulfites result naturally from the winemaking process, and sometimes they are added to stabilize wines and prevent spoilage. People making organic wines do not add sulfites, so but the still contain them from the natural winemaking process.

But the fact is that some people get headaches from drinking red wine. We know it can’t be laid at the door of sulfites, so what could it be?

Current research supports the theory that biogenic amines are the culprits: this group of chemicals include histamine, seratonin, dopamine, epinephrine and tyramine, among others. Seratonin is said to trigger migraines in migraine-prone people. Histamines were thought to be the culprit, but red wine and white wines have been shown to have equal levels of histamine. Tyramine, found in many fermented beverages and foods, could be it, as it seems to cause headaches and increased blood pressure… flushed cheeks, anyone? Most likely, though, it’s a combination of many biogenic amines that cause headaches and other discomforts associated with red wine.

The reason I’m dragging up the whole sordid mess again is that research chemists think they have come up with a solution: a device that tests for biogenic amines in wine. The thing is about the size of a suitcase right now, but once engineered for smallness it could be used tableside, to test wine before the demon juice has the opportunity to wreak havoc on your body chemistry. Scientists suggest the device could be used to include amine levels on wine labels. I suppose that would be better than labelling for sulfites, but I hate to throw another labelling law at winemakers.

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4 comments

  1. Great post. My friend suffers from these headaches and always thought it was the headaches. I read a post somewhere on the web that suggested taking an antihistamine before drinking wine and presto–no headaches. So it may be an allergic response but not the relatively rare sulfite allergy. Now she takes tylenol and an antihistamine, and doesn’t have to hit the migraine meds. Just a single anecdotal experience, and here’s the web page I got the idea from: http://www.wineloverspage.com/oxford/corked.shtml.

  2. Quite a lot of people get headaches from drinking red wine because they drink too much of it and they get what used to be called a hangover. If the cause really is a sulphite allergy then it would be set off by fruit juice and dried fruit as many of these products contain traces of sulphur too.

    Mixing Tylenol and alcohol is not a liver friendly combo – it’s too much to process at once and can cause real lasting damage. If the headaches area real problem then it’s smarter not to drink the wine.

    Wine labels carry warnings galore in the US. It would be interesting to see Twinkies having to carry warnings about the assorted ingredients and their potential effects on a childs body. It’s good to make informed choices, but sometimes the selected information required to displayed only on selected products mean consumers make worse choices than with no labels at all.

    That turned into a bit of a rant – sorry!

  3. Great article. I’m so curious to see what comes of that amine research. I don’t get headaches from red wine, but I do feel woozy the day after if I drink a glass or two too much (and that doesn’t happen very often).

    I have found it intriguing, though, how I can seemingly drink all day long in Italy and France (wine with lunch, wine after lunch, wine before dinner, wine with dinner, an aperatif after dinner) and a) not get drunk and b) not feel the slightest bit icky the next day. Yet at home, I’m constantly monitoring my “3 drink” rule over the course of an evening. (I know if I venture into the fourth glass I’m asking for trouble). Do you think it’s just the environment (and perhaps the amount of food I’m consuming with the wine in Europe ;-)) or do you think there’s a technical reason? Have you found that to be true?

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