Red Wine Headaches: Are They Real?

Woman With Red Wine HeadacheIf you’re a normal, casual drinker, the chances are that you probably know someone who refuses to drink red wine because it causes headaches. Perhaps you’re even that type of drinker yourself. But are red wine headaches real? And if so, what causes them?

The answers to both of those questions are as varied as the number of herbal supplements that supposedly clear your body of toxins, get rid of unsightly skin tags, and make you look years younger all in one simple formula. It really comes down to your sources and whom you choose to believe.

Are red wine headaches medically possible?

Despite the dissention over the cause of red wine headaches, the one thing everyone seems to agree on is the fact that they are very real for some people. Given that anyone can react negatively to something in their diet, it makes it foolish to argue against the reality of red wine headaches.

What must be understood is that a legitimate red wine headache is not the same thing as a migraine or a cluster headache. A migraine, according to the Mayo Clinic,  is a severe headache often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light. It can last anywhere from a couple of hours to days at a time.

Cluster headaches are equally painful but occur in waves or “clusters,” as the name implies. Sufferers will experience these headaches for few weeks at a time and then be in remission for months. Red wine headaches only occur in waves if your drinking patterns resemble those of the average, 21-year-old frat student living from weekend to weekend.

What is the culprit in red wine?

The question of what’s actually responsible for red wine headaches is where the real dissention comes into play. Vine Talk claims that its research has led to two distinct types of chemicals known as phenolic flavanoids and congeners. We’re not scientists, but those names sound like something from a Saturday morning cartoon or an ’80s punk band.

Phat band names aside, phenolic flavanoids apparently occur naturally in the stems, skins, and seeds of wine grapes. Red wine apparently has more of the little buggers because aging the wine requires leaving the offending grape pieces in contact with the juice for a longer period of time than with white wine. Think of it in terms of your mother-in-law: The longer she’s around the happier your wife is, but the more likely you are to suffer extreme pain.

As for congeners, they are chemicals that are left over as a natural part of the fermenting process. Once again, your mother-in-law makes a great choice for comparison purposes. Once she leaves you’ll hear the lingering echoes of her nagging voice in the words of your wife for at least the next few weeks.

All sarcasm aside, both phenolic flavanoids and congeners supposedly cause red wine headaches by dilating the blood vessels. The increased blood flow to the brain, while it may make you feel smarter, is also a probable cause of the headache.

What about sulfites―do they cause red wine headaches?

In some circles it’s believed sulfites are another cause of red wine headaches. This belief came about due to a misconception that organic wines don’t contain sulfites. Actually they do; sulfites naturally occur in all types of wine, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal. We’re not sure why a financial newspaper is discussing red wine headaches but that’s beside the point.

The point regarding sulfites is this: just because your granola-crunching neighbor feels superior about only drinking organic red wine doesn’t mean his lack of red wine headaches can be attributed to a sulfite-free beverage. His organic wine maker of choice didn’t add extra sulfites to the brew, but they didn’t remove the existing sulfites either.

What can I do to avoid red wine headaches?

If you’re someone who is sensitive to phenolic flavanoids, congeners, and other alleged culprits like histamine and tyramine, the first thing you need to do is explain those terms to your drinking buddies. After that, avoiding red wine headaches is a matter of a few different options.

The first option is the easiest: Don’t drink red wine. No rocket science here. The second option is to take an antihistamine or some aspirin before your planned consumption of red wine. Of course, the labels of such over-the-counter drugs caution against using them with alcohol so perhaps you’d better speak to a doctor before engaging in this risky behavior.

The third option is to drink plenty of water along with your red wine. How this helps no one really knows, except to say that if consuming alcohol causes dehydration it could also cause headaches. Keeping yourself hydrated would be useful in such cases.

Are red wine headaches real? They are if you get them. For everyone else, they might be just a figment of the imagination destined to be lumped together with all the other things your mother told to. If your mother-in-law says they are real, well, that’s a different story.