Wine and Headaches

For many people, wine leads to headaches even if they keep their consumption levels in check. You may be sipping a perfectly exquisite Cabernet, appreciating its maturity and its velvety texture, and suddenly the throbbing in your head starts and doesn't abate. What causes these types of headaches?

Sulfites usually get the blame. After all, the label on the wine bottle has a bold, cautionary warning: “Contains sulfites.” In reality, only 1 percent of the general population has a genuine sulfites allergy, usually individuals with asthma or those on steroid medications.

If you are part of that 1 percent, you'll more than likely develop rashes, abdominal pain, or extreme breathing problems from the wine. If you take a sip of Chianti and get a headache but not a rash, you cannot blame sulfites for your condition.

Sulfites are present in lots of foods — and at usually higher concentrations than in wine. They're contained in dried fruits, jams, baked goods, canned vegetables, frozen orange juice, bacon, dried noodles, and pickled foods.

The Sulfite Story

In wine, as in other foods, some sulfites are naturally present. The primary element of sulfites, sulfur, is abundant in various forms in all living things. In winemaking, manufactured sulfites are added to wine to prevent bacterial growth and to protect against oxidation. The practice of using sulfites as a preservative isn't new, and winemakers worldwide continue to add them. Only when their wines are sold in the United States do they have to be labeled with the sulfite warning. Before that bottle of Chianti hits the shelf at Costco, an extra or new label goes on.

The amounts of added sulfites are small. They are measured in parts per million (ppm). The legal limit for some foods goes as high as 6,000 ppm. For wine the maximum allowed is 350 ppm, but most wines contain much less — typically from 25 to 150 ppm.

The law says that if a wine has a sulfites concentration of 10 ppm or higher, the label must carry the sulfite warning. To be labeled a “no sulfite wine,” it can contain no more than 1 ppm. Because those wines are very perishable, they should be consumed sooner rather than later.

In general, white wines will have more added sulfites than reds. When grapes are crushed to make white wine, only the juice goes into a tank for fermentation. Red wines must be in contact with red grape skins during fermentation, and besides imparting color, the skins pass on tannins, which act as natural preservatives.

The Blame Game

Even if sulfites are not the cause of your headache, this information does little to remove it. Here are five possible sources of your wine headache:

  • Histamines — These are chemical substances found in aged and fermented foods such as wine, cheese, and salami. They also occur naturally in eggplant. Histamines are the substances behind allergic reactions. Among other effects, they can dilate the blood vessels in your brain. Red wines usually have a higher level of histamines.

  • Tyramines — These are chemical substances found in cultured foods such as cheese and yogurt; fermented foods like wine, dark beer, and soy sauce; and chocolate, vanilla, nuts, and beans. Tyramines are toxic, and the liver works to remove them from the body. Scientists believe that alcohol slows the rate at which the liver processes tyramines, thus resulting in wine headaches.

  • Congeners — These organic compounds are by-products of fermentation that help give wine its characteristic flavor. When congeners enter the bloodstream, your immune system recognizes them as poisons and releases cytokines (the same molecules that fight off the flu) to eliminate them. Generally, darker beverages (red wine, bourbon) have more congeners than lighter ones (white wine, vodka).

  • Prostaglandins — These are naturally occurring compounds in grape skins, and some people have difficulty metabolizing them. Ibuprofen blocks prostaglandins, so take one before your day of wine tasting.

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