Red wine headaches, fact or fiction?

Even in small portions red wine can leave some people with a throbbing headache. Not to be confused with the headache you may get the morning after a night of over-imbibing, these headaches usually occur within 15 minutes of drinking the wine.

The syndrome has even been given a name by the medical community: RWH, or “Red Wine Headache.” And while it hardly gets the funding of life threatening ailments, there are scientific studies currently underway to better understand the root of this phenomenon.

The most commonly blamed substance, sulfites, has virtually been eliminated as the culprit. Sulfites are sulfur-containing compounds that control bacteria in wine and act as a preservative. Sulfites are created naturally during fermentation, but some winemakers also add more of the compound during the winemaking process. People who are sensitive to sulfites may have a reaction when they ingest them, but this is more likely to come in the form of breathing problems, not a headache. And lots of foods (including white wine) contain more sulfites than red wine, but they aren’t know to cause headaches.

Alcohol itself could be the trigger, but if this were the problem alone, the syndrome would be called “Alcohol Headache,” not “Red Wine Headache.” Tannins, the compound that gives red wine an astringent quality, may be the culprit. Tannins release serotonin, high levels of which can cause headaches. The problem with this theory is chocolate, soy and tea all have high levels of tannins, too.

Histamines, found in much greater quantities in red wine than in white, could be a factor. But, a histamine-induced reaction would also be accompanied by other symptoms like itching, sneezing and shortness of breath. An antihistamine should cure this type reaction.

If you are prone to RWHs, a trial and error based experiment is your best bet at the moment. Keeping a journal to note your reactions, experiment with a wide range of wines and then stick with those that do not cause the headache.

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