Red wine headaches. I get them. You might too. They are common. What causes them? No one knows for sure. Researchers have had good leads, but none of the usual suspects have been determined to be the real cause. Sulfites, tannins, histamines and tyramines have been examined and here’s what the lay of the land looks like:
It was the early 1980’s, Reagan was fighting the cold war and sulfites were the cause of red wine headaches. Sulfites are natural byproducts of yeast that are used by most winemakers for their antioxidant and anti-microbial properties and are added to help the wine have a clean fermentation process. And if you don’t have problems drinking white wines because they have less sulfites, think again, because they are sweeter, they actually have more.
In deli meats, cheeses and dried apricots you will find sulfites doing a great job as preservatives. They can cause allergic reactions, and if you are getting raging head-aches after eating raisins and apricots, then sulfites are likely the culprits, otherwise keep looking. And because this is uncommon, the research started looking in other directions.
The next stop in search of the red wine head-ache was at the doorstep of the histamine. Histamines are compounds found in plant and animal tissues that cause an allergic reaction in humans. They stimulate gastric secretion and cause dilation of capillaries, constriction of bronchial smooth muscle and decreased blood pressure. They are what we block when allergy season rolls around.
Mostly in fermented products, but in many foods in general, and this time more in red wine than in white, is where you’ll find histamines. While histamines are found in grape skins, researchers believe that they are not found in high enough volumes to be considered problematic. According to a study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in February of 2001, there was no difference between the results of drinking low- and high-histamine wines in the test subjects. However, we are still waiting for other research groups to provide a sufficient analysis of histamine effects from red wine consumption.
Tyramines are commonly found in many foods, such as cheeses, figs, avocados and chocolate, as well as in robust red wines and specifically Chianti. Monoamine oxidase (MAO) is a liver and brain enzyme that is used to clean up amines in the body. In the liver, one of the functions of MAO is to inactivate tyramine and change it into a harmless acetic acid. Otherwise, the tyramine can cause a dangerous increase in blood pressure.
Hormones released during stress and PMS inhibit MAO activity, as does alcohol. Researchers have found that people who have sluggish MAO activity or are taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (the base of some antidepressants) may not be able to inactivate the influx of tyramine, which could cause the red wine headache.
Tannins have recently taken most of the blame for causing red wine headaches. Tannins are natural defense mechanisms in plants that create a bitter, astringent taste which induces a negative response when consumed. In wine, these plant polyphenols are derived from the grape skins and provide the flavanoids in wine that give you the dry, puckery mouth sensation. They’re not only found in wine, but also in cheese, nuts, chocolate and tea. The tea industry has recently been touting the healthy effects of antioxidants provided by the tannins.
One possible link is the fact that tannins bind starches together, and prevent these starches from being used by the body to produce serotonin. Serotonin is used to dilate and constrict blood vessels in the brains. When there is a serotonin deficiency, these vessels tend to constrict, thereby reducing blood flow to the brain, which will cause a migraine. Tannins are also naturally found in wood, especially in oak. Most wine is aged in oak, so logically the tannins found within the oak are going to be transferred into the wine.
However, something that has not been studied is the difference between tannin transference from American oak and French oak. We know that American oak leaves stronger impressions in wines and that wines stored in French oak barrels receive more subtle barrel flavors. Why is this important? Because many people have claimed to be receive a migraine every time they drink American red wine, while they are able to drink most French and Italian red wines without any ill effects.