Wine Induced Headache

Andrew Polmear writes for the love of wine…

I like to go wine tasting with my friend Dave. We must look a funny pair because we are usually the only ones conscientiously spitting out everything we taste. I do it because I don’t want to get cancer of the mouth or gullet (see The Whistler December 2012); Dave because wine gives him a severe headache about an hour after starting to drink. He doesn’t get migraine so it’s not that. And it’s too early to be a hangover. Fearful of losing him as a tasting partner, I’ve been looking into the cause of wine-induced headache and what can be done about it.

WineAsk people what they think causes the headache and most will say it’s the sulphites. Sulphites tend to be blamed for a lot that goes wrong with wine because it’s the only toxin mentioned on the label. Any wine that has more than 10 parts per million of sulphites has to carry this warning – and that means every bottle you are likely to find. Sulphites occur in wine naturally but more are added to inhibit bacterial and fungal growth, to stabilise the wine against turning into vinegar, and, in red wine, to extract colour from the grape skins. Any wine without added sulphites is likely to go ‘off’ within 6 months of being bottled. Sulphites are bad news for those genuinely allergic, i.e. those who get a rash or who wheeze after ingestion, but they do not cause headache! If they did, those susceptible would get headache after all the other foods that contain sulphites in much higher concentrations: dried fruits, potato chips and crisps, and cereals to name but a few.

So what does cause the headache? There are some interesting suggestions: histamine and tyramine are found in wine and can cause headache; tannins and related chemicals (called flavonoids) can too, as can a group of compounds called prostaglandins. Maybe it’s all of these, maybe none. Instead of looking for the cause I propose a practical approach to the problem:

  1. Do some detective work. Is it all grape varieties or only some? Tannins are high in Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, but low in Tempranillo. So if you are OK with Rioja but get headache with Bordeaux that may be the answer. Are you OK with unoaked wine but not with oak? Are you OK with some soil types and not others?
  2. Take an antihistamine, or two aspirin, or ibuprofen 400 mg, 1 hour before drinking. This will block some of the postulated reactions in the body that could be causing the headache.
  3. Avoid cheap wines. They are more likely to have added sugar. One theory is that alcohol and sugar together cause water to seep out of the body’s cells into the space between the cells, causing headache. For the same reason avoid sweet things with your wine.

Meanwhile, if you see a sober pair of guys, one quite short, one rather tall, spitting away amongst the increasingly merry crowd at your next tasting, you’ll know that Dave hasn’t found the solution yet, but he’s still trying.

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