Why red wine gives you a headache and what to do about it

A South African health coverage provider has taken a closer look at why red wine is often singled out for its reputation as a common headache culprit. Picture: Supplied

A South African health coverage provider has taken a closer look at why red wine is often singled out for its reputation as a common headache culprit. Picture: Supplied

Published Jan 31, 2024

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Durban — Is your enjoyment of a good glass of red wine dampened by the headache that follows? A South African health coverage provider has touched on why red wine might be giving you a headache and how to avoid it.

Affinity Health has taken a closer look at why red wine is often singled out for its reputation as a common headache culprit.

Differentiating between a wine headache and a hangover, Affinity Health chief executive Murray Hewlett said: “A wine headache, which occurs during the first three hours of drinking, is not the same as a hangover, which occurs later.”

“Headaches can occur 30 minutes after drinking only one or two tiny glasses, rather than after a long session.”

Here are some of the reasons why you get a headache after drinking wine:

Sulfites

Sulfites are a common preservative in many foods and beverages, including wine. They help prevent spoilage and maintain the wine's freshness. While sulfites are generally recognised as safe for consumption, they can trigger headaches and allergic reactions in some individuals. Sulfites are more prevalent in red wine than in white wine.

To reduce the risk of sulfite-induced headaches, consider choosing wines labelled as sulfite-free or low-sulfite. Additionally, drinking organic or biodynamic wines may help, as they often contain lower sulfite levels.

Histamines

Histamines are naturally occurring compounds in various foods and beverages, including wine. They contribute to the body's immunological response and can dilate blood vessels, leading to congestion and headaches. Some individuals are more sensitive to histamines and may experience headaches after consuming histamine-rich foods or drinks, including red wine.

Antihistamines may help mitigate the histamine-related headache risk. Before using any medicine, consult a healthcare expert, especially if you have pre-existing medical conditions or are taking other prescriptions.

Tannins

Tannins are compounds in grape skins, seeds and stems contributing to red wine’s astringent and dry feeling. While tannins are necessary for the structure and flavour of wine, they can cause headaches in some people. This is because tannins may cause blood vessels to tighten, resulting in decreased blood flow to the brain.

Suppose you suspect that tannins cause wine-induced headaches; try opting for wines with lower tannin levels. Lighter red wine varieties tend to have milder tannins compared to full-bodied options.

Tyramine

Tyramine is another naturally occurring compound found in red wine that has been associated with headaches. It forms when the amino acid tyrosine breaks down in certain foods and beverages, including aged or fermented products like red wine, cheese and smoked meats. Tyramine can trigger the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, potentially leading to headaches in susceptible individuals.

To reduce the risk of tyramine-induced headaches, choose fresher wine varieties (over-aged wines) and pair them with low-tyramine foods, such as eggs, certain cheeses, pasta and cereals.

Dehydration

Consuming alcohol, including red wine, can lead to dehydration. Because alcohol is a diuretic, it causes an increase in urine production and fluid loss. Dehydration can restrict blood vessels in the brain, resulting in headaches. Dehydration can also intensify the effects of alcohol, making you feel more intoxicated.

To minimise the risk of dehydration when enjoying red wine, drink water alongside your wine to stay hydrated.

Alcohol sensitivity

Some people may be more sensitive to the effects of alcohol, and this sensitivity can manifest as headaches, especially after consuming red wine. Alcohol sensitivity varies between individuals and may be influenced by heredity, metabolism and overall health.

To reduce the likelihood of alcohol-induced headaches, consider moderating your alcohol consumption, alternating alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic options and eating a balanced meal before drinking.

Migraine Triggers

Migraines are complex neurological events triggered by various factors, including specific foods and drinks. Red wine, with its combination of alcohol, histamines, tannins and other compounds, can trigger migraines in susceptible individuals.

Keeping a migraine diary and identifying triggers can help you make more informed choices about your wine consumption. If you frequently get migraines after drinking red wine, you should see a doctor. They can help determine the underlying causes of your headaches and provide personalised recommendations to reduce their occurrence.

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