Why do we get headaches from wine?

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Yes, if you drink too much of it you will score for yourself a lovely headache. Why is it however, when you drink some wines you find yourself with a terrible headache, and then when you drink even more of another you have no headache at all?

First up lets discuss sulphites. Many people seem to think that sulphites in wine cause headaches. However, many scientists believe this is not true. “Sulphites can cause allergy and asthma symptoms, but they don’t cause headaches,” says Frederick Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago and a board member of the National Headache Foundation.

Many winemakers also add small amounts of sulphites to their wines to help preserve them and to kill wild yeasts that can ruin a wine’s taste “if you don’t do something to shut down the native yeasts and bacteria that come in with the grape skin, you’re going to get wine that is absolutely horrific. sulphites are the most benign way of doing that, but they don’t cause headaches.”

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Although experts say more study is warranted, and there is dissent, a lot of research suggests that the headache culprits might be histamine and tyramine, other chemical substances that are naturally present in wine. Histamine dilates blood vessels and tyramine first constricts then dilates blood vessels — ouch!

Several studies from Europe show that red wines, in general, contain more histamine than Champagnes or sparkling wines and those usually contain more histamine than still white wines. Indeed, headaches from red wine are very common, but histamine content does not correlate consistently with colour, bouquet or taste characteristics of wine.

People who most often have trouble with histamine in wine, are those who lack an enzyme in their intestines that can help them metabolize histamine. Tyramine, in the meantime, can cause your blood pressure to rise, and that triggers headaches in some people. These same people might get headaches from aged cheeses, smoked or cured meats, and citrus fruits.

The amount of tyramine varies depending on the type of grape.  Riesling is one of the higher tyramine-containing wines.  Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs are low.  Chiantis are higher than Rieslings.

But once again, nothing here is absolutely clear, or without controversy.

There is some research that indicates psychological issues also are important. Several researchers noted that people responded differently to substances that cause them headaches depending on their state of mind, which might explain, in part, the-wines-on-vacation syndrome. Think about the common question: Why does Champagne give me such a headache? Maybe the answer is that the bubbles carry alcohol to the bloodstream faster. But maybe part of the answer is that people drink more Champagne than they think they do during the festive occasions at which it’s often served, and aren’t eating food with it.

Others blame cheaper wines, stating that when sugar is added to grape juice to produce alcohol to boost the alcohol content of a wine, it creates a less pure kind of alcohol, and that helps trigger headaches.

So what’s a person to do?

We suggest you drink in moderation and with food, and that if you’re sensitive to histamine, consult your doctor and take precautions. Vitamin B6 can help your body metabolize histamine, some say. Drinking plenty of water when you’re having wine might also help. Dehydration can cause headaches, too.