If you love red wine, but it doesn’t always love you, you’re not alone. Read on and discover the surprising cause of the red wine headache and how best to avoid it.
Even the most experienced wine drinkers have had a rough morning after imbibing too heavily the night before. A red wine headache–or RWH for short–are something else entirely.
For some, one glass of red wine is enough to give them a headache just an hour after drinking. While some love red wine enough to brave the dreaded RWH, for others, it puts them off it completely. Honestly, this is pretty heartbreaking considering all the helpful antioxidants red wine possesses.
Luckily, there is a light at the end of the red wine headache. Read on and discover the surprising cause of red wine headaches and how best to avoid them.
What’s the Difference Between RWH and a Hangover
When you consume too much alcohol and wake up the next morning with a headache, nausea, and can’t think of anything except water and Tylenol…that’s a hangover. When you drink too much wine (or alcohol of any kind) the “hangover” you might experience the next morning is a result of dehydration and acetaldehyde.
Moderate alcohol consumption has actually been associated with some health benefits. However, once your alcohol consumption passes a certain point, you lose all those benefits and start to damage your body. That could mean electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, low blood sugar, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, and more.
Plus, if the alcohol you’re drinking has lots of added sugar, your hangover will be even worse. Both sugar and alcohol have dehydrating effects and they both need the liver to process them. Basically, you’ll feel even more dehydrated and your liver will have to work twice as hard.
Red Wine Headaches, on the other hand, can set in after just half a glass of wine. This type of headache doesn’t have anything to do with alcohol or sugar content. That means it’s not caused by dehydration (although that can probably make it worse) and it doesn’t have anything to do with acetaldehyde build-up.
Myth: Sulfites Don’t Cause Red Wine Headaches
First, let’s take a look at some of the myths surrounding red wine headaches. The biggest one being sulfites. Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, are a common preservative added to a surprisingly large amount of food and drink. While you won’t find it in or on fresh fruits or meats, you’ll likely find it in dried fruits, some dry goods, and sometimes even preserved meat. You’ll also find it in different types of wine.
While its chemical name makes it sound pretty scary, it’s not nearly as problematic as additives like mega purple or even added sugar. Some sulfites are actually a byproduct of the fermentation process during winemaking. This isn’t usually a large enough amount to ensure preservation, so additional sulfites are often added afterward.
While there are a few individuals with sensitivities to sulfites, their experiences are very different from the more typical red wine headaches. These individuals sometimes experience allergic reactions like asthma or even rashes. Luckily, less than one percent of the American population deals with this.
On top of that, if you have a sulfite sensitivity you’re way more likely to have a reaction to dried fruit, jam, or even soda. That’s because the amount of sulfites in red wine is far lower in comparison. White wine has somewhere between 250-450 parts per million and red wine has even less with 50-350 parts per million. Compare that to the 1,000-3,000 parts per million that dried fruit can have and the argument just doesn’t hold up.
So, there’s really no need to worry the next time you see “contains sulfites” on your wine bottle.
Myth: Tannins “Probably” Don’t Cause Red Wine Headaches
The second myth is tannins. Tannins, a type of polyphenol, are found in the skin of grapes and they’re responsible for the dry, bitter experience many red wines have. In general, the darker the grape, the more polyphenols. It should come as no surprise then that bold red wines, like cabernet sauvignons, have the highest amount of tannins.
Many believe that tannins are the culprit of the dreaded red wine headache, but the jury is still out on that one too. If tannins were the problem, then strong black tea (another tannin-heavy beverage) would also give people headaches. While there are studies that show worse hangovers after drinking alcohol with lots of tannins (bourbon, other barrel-aged alcohols, etc.), there’s not much evidence that tannins are the main culprit of basic red wine headaches.
We won’t lie, considering that tannins add so much richness and complexity to our favorite red wines, it’s hard for us to be impartial. However, there’s just not enough evidence to say for sure that tannins are the main issue,
What Causes Red Wine Headaches?
So, if sulfites and tannins aren’t to blame, then what’s causing red wine headaches? The most likely causes are histamines and tyramine.
Tyramine is an amino acid produced during fermentation and, if not broken down properly, can affect blood pressure in a way that leads to headaches. To process tyramine, the body has to have a specific enzyme. If your body doesn’t have enough of that enzyme, tyramine will first constrict and then dilate your blood vessels. This leads to slightly higher blood pressure, which oftentimes means getting a headache. This particular compound is already a well-known trigger for those who suffer from migraines.
Basically, if your body doesn’t know how to process tyramine properly, you’ll probably get a headache after ingesting food or drink with tyramine. Many aged foods, like different kinds of cheeses, have tyramine in them. So, if tyramine already gives you a headache, that makes those wine and cheese parties pretty risky.
It’s likely that you’re already somewhat familiar with histamines. That’s because they’re the compounds that get released during an allergic reaction. Just how some people have more allergies than others, some people are more affected by extra histamines than others. If your body is more sensitive to them, the histamines in wine will cause your blood vessels to dilate, your face to flush, and then produce extra inflammation. Ergo, headache.
Histamines, or biogenic amines, are actually a byproduct of the fermentation process, so it’s particularly tricky to avoid them in wine. Red wine has significantly more histamines than white wine, which is one of the reasons why it’s coined the “Red Wine Headache” instead of just the “Wine Headache.” While it’s absolutely possible that it’s a combination of several factors, it’s likely that histamines and tyramine are the main culprits.
How to Avoid Red Wine Headaches
Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill that will help you drink glass after glass of red wine without the headache. There’s a variety of wine wands or filters that claim to remove histamines, tannins, and more, but the reviews are a mixed bag at best.
If your body is sensitive to any of these compounds, you should listen. There are however, a few tips you can follow to lessen the headaches and keep loving your wine.
First and foremost, pay attention to what types of wine give you headaches. While there are some experimental low-histamine wines, they’re hard to get a hold of. Until they’re a regular occurrence, it’s best to pay attention to your body. Sometimes wine from certain regions will have more tyramine or histamines, so paying attention will help you enjoy wine without reaching for the bottles that bring on the RWH.
You might shake your head when we tell you that staying hydrated will help, but it will! Staying hydrated will help reduce headaches and help offset the alcohol. Stay hydrated throughout the day, and drink an extra 8oz glass of water for every glass of wine you drink. We’re firm believers in the idea that wine is part of a healthy lifestyle, so we’ve done our homework on that one.
Speaking of healthy lifestyles, make sure the wine you’re reaching for is natural and not full of added chemicals and sugars. If you already combat red wine headaches, don’t give your body extra battles to fight. While you’re at it, low-alcohol wine can help reduce the risk of adverse reactions as well.
When it comes down to it, wine is about enjoyment. So, make sure you’re practicing moderation and only drinking wine that’s high-quality and not likely to give you a bad case of RWH.
If you regularly get headaches from red wine, we hope this information will help you develop a plan of action so you can still enjoy your next wine tasting event. Headaches are no fun, so we want to make sure you still get to order your wine and drink it too!
Consider joining SECCO Wine Club so you can try several low-carb, natural wines. Having wine delivered right to your door is the safest, easiest way to sample a variety of wine so you can figure out what works best for you. Don’t forget to tag us in your SECCO Wine Club posts on Instagram for a chance to be featured in one of our stories!