We’re often asked why wine can bring on a headache. While drinking too much wine and not enough water may well give you a hangover and aching head the morning after, the wine itself is rarely to blame. So we thought it was time to debunk the myths and set the facts straight.
Poor old sulphites (or sulfites) have got a bad name over the years, but it’s worth noting that they occur naturally in all wines – even organic ones – to a greater or lesser degree, and are added to a number of foods as a preservative. Sulphites naturally help to preserve wine and prevent oxidisation, so sometimes more are added in the winemaking process as well.
While harmless to the vast majority of wine drinkers, sulphites may occasionally trigger allergic or asthmatic reactions, which is why most wine labels signal their presence. Those reactions are more likely to manifest as breathing difficulties.
Your ‘wine headache’ is more likely be due to one or more of the following:
Another naturally occurring compound, tannins are present in the skin, seeds and stems of grapes, and are essential in creating the structure of a wine, as well as imparting that ‘dry’ sensation in the mouth when you drink it. A good source of antioxidants, tannins are also found in many other foods, including tea.
Tannins release serotonin in the body, a neurotransmitter that, if the levels are too high, can cause headaches in some people. In this instance, red wine is more likely to be a factor, as, unlike in the making of white wine, the whole grape is used in the process, thereby retaining more of the tannins.
You can try testing whether it is actually tannins that are causing your headaches by brewing a cup of black tea and letting it stand for about 10 minutes before drinking it (without milk of course). Over-steeping the tea releases all its tannins, so if your head begins to pound, that may well be the reason.
If that’s the case, and you still prefer to drink red wine, then it’s probably best to avoid the thicker-skinned (and consequently higher tannic) red grapes, such as shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or malbec, and instead enjoy ‘lighter’ reds including pinot noir, grenache and merlot. Our Pinot Meunier Pinot Noir and Old Clone Pinot Noir may turn out to be just what the doctor ordered!
These chemicals are the bad boys that cause so many allergic reactions, such as the common symptoms of sore eyes and a runny nose when the pollen season is in full swing. Our bodies produce histamines that are triggered by certain preserved and fermented foods, aged red meat and cheeses, as well as beers and red wine.
If the body’s reaction is too strong, it will over-produce histamines, which can manifest in allergic symptoms through inflammation. That said, there’s a school of thought that has found very little correlation between histamines and headaches. However, one simple way of combating the possibility of a reaction is to take an antihistamine before pouring your glass of red. But be careful, and make sure it’s a non-drowsy one.
The alternative – and far more pleasant – way to help avoid a headache if you’re susceptible to histamines is to switch to dry white wine, as this contains minimal histamine triggers. A glass or two of Best’s Great Western Riesling might be the answer here. Interestingly, as Champagne is made with a combination of red and white grapes, it’s slightly more likely to bring on a sore head than a sparkling wine made only with white grapes.
The sugars naturally present in wine work in much the same way as any other sugar, in that they deplete the water in our body. Combined with the other naturally dehydrating components in wine, including tannins and alcohol, it’s a potent mix. This is where keeping yourself hydrated comes in, as water is essential for processing these substances effectively in the body.
The advice to drink plenty of water when you’re drinking alcohol is to ensure your body is not drawing water from certain parts of your body to others that might need it. If you’re dehydrated, the first place you’re going to feel it is in your head – and that means with a headache. This is also why hangover symptoms, including a pounding headache, may be lessened by keeping up your water intake while you’re drinking wine.
You may also find that sweeter styles, especially dessert wines, might exacerbate headaches due to their high sugar content. And note that many mass-produced, cheaper wines have had sugar added during fermentation to boost their alcohol level, so there may be some truth in the adage that avoiding cheap red or white wine is better for your wellbeing.
So, don’t lay too much blame for your headache on the sulphites in that bottle of red – there may be all sorts of other reasons for it. The best way to avoid the pain is to keep in mind the style of wine you choose and to drink plenty of water as you go.