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How to Avoid the Dreaded Red Wine Headache

Two glasses of red wine on a rustic table in front of a charcuterie platter.
Natalia Van Doninck/Shutterstock

For many people, a glass of vino is simultaneously a delightful treat and the bane of their existence. If you’re familiar with the all-too-common “red-wine headache,” here’s what causes it, and how you can prevent it.

What Causes Red Wine Headaches?

Although some wine headaches are just a run-of-the-mill hangover, that’s not always the case. Some people experience them quite often whenever they drink red wine—even in small quantities. The phenomenon is so common, it’s often referred to as a red wine headache (RWH), and extensive research has been done on the matter.

Unfortunately, no absolute cause has been discovered, but several possible culprits have been identified.

Sulfites

You might have heard that sulfites cause RWHs, but that’s actually highly unlikely. Sulfites exist naturally in grapes, and, usually, they’re also added to wine as a preservative to extend its shelf life. While approximately 1 percent of the population is allergic to sulfites and have a reaction to them, these people tend to experience breathing problems, not headaches.

Still not convinced? Well, consider that white wine actually contains more sulfites than red. Also, foods like dried fruit and cured meats, and other beverages, like canned sodas, contain even higher amounts of sulfites than white wine.

So, if you don’t have headaches when you drink white wine or canned soda, or when you eat the above-mentioned foods, sulfites aren’t to blame.

Tannins

Another theory points the finger at tannins. This compound is in the skin on grapes. Tannins give red wine its bitter taste and also cause your mouth to feel dry. Although tannins contain antioxidant properties, they also stimulate the production of serotonin in the brain, which, in high doses, can cause headaches.

Grape skin isn’t used to produce white wine, so it makes sense that the headaches would only occur after a few glasses of red.

However, high doses of tannins are also in tea, chocolate, and soy products. Unless you also find yourself running to the medicine cabinet after you indulge in some chocolate or sip your favorite afternoon tea, chances are something else is making your head hurt.

Histamine and Tyramine

It’s been suggested that histamine and tyramine are the most probable culprits of RWHs. When someone has an allergy, their body naturally releases histamine when it’s triggered by the allergen. This causes inflammation and the dilation of blood vessels, which are major precursors to headaches.

People who tend to experience RWHs more often might have an enzyme deficiency that prevents their bodies from successfully metabolizing histamine, which results in higher amounts of the compound in their blood. What’s worse is alcohol alone can increase the histamine level in the body. This means the unlucky folks who lack this much-useful enzyme can’t really avoid headaches whenever they drink alcohol. Life sure can be cruel sometimes.

Another potential culprit is tyramine, which is a by-product of the fermentation process. This amino acid constricts blood vessels and increases blood pressure, which generally leads to a headache. People who are prone to migraines have difficulty breaking it down.

Because other fermented products also have high amounts of tyramine, these people probably also experience headaches when they eat things like cheese, yogurt, yeast, and soy sauce, as well as produce, like coconuts, avocadoes, and eggplants which are high in amino acids.

This is not the news wine and cheese lovers want to hear.

Tips to Prevent Red Wine Headaches

A woman smelling a glass of red wine with her eyes closed.
stockfour/Shutterstock

Before you pour the rest of your beloved red wine down the drain and question how you’ll go on living, you might be pleased to know that are ways you can prevent unbearable RWHs. Although none of these are guaranteed to prevent your headaches, they could improve your vino experience.

Before you head out to your next wine-tasting or dinner party, try some of these preemptive methods, so you can hopefully avoid an ugly RWH:

  • Hydrate: Alcohol is a diuretic (that is, it causes you to pee a lot), which can lead to dehydration, which can cause a headache. Since red wine has higher alcohol content than white, it’s imperative that you drink enough water. For every glass of wine, drink eight ounces of water.
  • Avoid fermented foods: Yes, pairing cheese with wine is delicious, but it’s best to avoid it if you’re drinking red wine due to its high histamine and tyramine content. To minimize your chances of discomfort, opt for non-fermented foods and snacks, instead, and enjoy your vino like royalty.
  • Avoid sugar: No cheese or dessert? Yes, it sounds pretty grim. The problem is your body needs a large amount of water to process the combination of sugar and alcohol. When it doesn’t have enough water, your body will start depleting the much-needed fluid from other areas, like your head, which will eventually cause your head to ache. If you don’t want to skip dessert or bread, opt for a dry red, as they tend to have less sugar.
  • Stick to high-quality wines: Not only do they taste better, but they’re also healthier. Cheap wines tend to have more alcohol, residual sugar, sulfur, and fining agents, like gelatin, which all contribute to RWHs. These things are also more likely to increase the release of prostaglandins in your body, which are lipids linked to inflammation and pain. Next time you’re at the liquor store, bite the bullet and grab that pricier red you’ve been eyeing forever—your bank account might not thank you, but your head sure will.
  • Opt for lighter reds: Because full-bodied wines contain higher amounts of tannins, go for lighter reds that might taste just as good, but minimize your chances of getting a headache. Pinot Noir, Barbera, Sangiovese, and Rioja are all great options to consider. Try some different ones until you find the one that works for you. Headaches occur about 15 minutes after the first couple of sips, so if you’re still loving life after you’ve drunk half a glass, you know you’ve found the right one.
  • Take an antihistamine or painkiller beforehand: Many people find if they take aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen about an hour before they drink red wine, they don’t get a headache later. While this can be effective, it can also be dangerous. Some of these products can have dangerous side effects, including liver damage, when they’re combined with alcohol. It’s always best to do research or talk to your doctor first.

Despite the painful aftertaste, it’s sometimes really hard to resist a good glass of red wine. While there’s no foolproof way to avoid RWHs, if you take the right preemptive step, it could aid you in your quest to enjoy your red wine to the fullest. Remember to stay hydrated and drink in moderation whenever possible to minimize your chances of getting an alcohol-related headache, or, even worse, a hangover.

With New Year’s Eve just around the corner, it’s going to be hard to follow this advice, but if you test out a few these tips beforehand, it might give you a way to welcome the new decade with a big smile on your face—and no headache. Cheers!

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »

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