Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Red Wine Headache- Myth or Real?

Quite a few of my friends react to red wine. 

I used to- in face as little as a half glass of a California Cab would send me running for an aspirin; so I don't poo poo folks who say they can't tolerate red wine.

That intolerance is doubly unfortunate- red wines are not only glorious with a whole range of dishes, but research has shown  health benefits of drinking red wine in moderation, including increased bone mineral density in post menopausal women, slowing  macular degeneration ( a significant cause of age related blindness), and increased production of "good" cholesterol, which may have benefits for heart health, and even protection against hearing loss

Fortunately for me, one of the compensations of getting old(er) is that your metabolism tends to change. Now I can drink red wine with no more effect than white wine or spirits, and I am grateful.

Even so, I am still curious about what it is in red wine that so many folks seem to react to.

Isn't Red Wine Headache same thing as a hangover?

There is a difference between a hangover and the specific reaction to red wine often termed RWH (for red wine headache).

 The headache that comes with a hangover takes longer to develop and is frequently the result of dehydration: a known cause of headache. Alcohol is a diuretic, and unless you consume a great deal of water along with your tipple, you are likely to become dehydrated and wake up with a headache the next morning (along with other unpleasant symptoms)

RWH can hit much sooner, even as quickly as within a quarter hour of consuming red wine. (I know this from experience!) and among the causes that have been speculated upon are the presence of sulfites, and/or allergic reactions to histamines,  tannins or other amines present in greater quantity in red wines than in whites.

But is it the sulfites?

The warning label on all wines has created the impression that sulfites are the likely culprit in producing red wine headaches as well as other negative side effects.

Sulfites, a byproduct of fermentation, are present in all wines, even those produced organically. They are often added to wine in the winery, first to destroy wild yeast  in order to have a more controlled fermentation, and later to either stop fermentation while there is still residual sugar (producing a wine with noticeable sweetness on the palate) or as a preservative and anti-oxidant. Without it, wine would spoil quickly. 

Generally, there are more sulfites in white wine than in red wine and more in sweet wines than in dry wines, so they are unlikely the cause of the RWH. Also, there are usually more sulfites in a glass of orange juice than in a bottle or wine, so again, not the likely cause. 

So why have a warning label on each and every bottle of wine? 

Well, a small percentage of the population, especially severe asthmatics, have extreme reactions to sulfites; hence the government requires a warning label on all foods and beverages with sulfites added 

If not the sulfites, then what?

A number of compounds, including tannins  present in red wine are known to cause blood vessels to dilate, including those in the head: a known cause of headache.

Biogenic amines, such as histamine, can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals including headache, GI upset, shortness of breath, and even irregular heartbeat.

The amounts of these compounds vary by varietal ,where the grapes were grown, and how they were fermented according to an article in Culinaire Magazine (available free on line. The article in question is on page 56). In a nutshell, old world wines tend to be higher in biogenic amines, especially Champagne, Chianti and Riesling, than their new world counterparts. Bordeaux reds and California Cabs tend to have high concentrations, while cool weather Pinot Noir (such as we grow here in Oregon) tend to be lower.

As the article suggests, wine is complex, and contains many compounds in varying concentrations. If you are one of the unfortunates that tends to suffer headache from red wines, keep a journal. Check out reds with lower tannin concentrations- perhaps half a glass only- and track the results to see which ones you can tolerate without difficulty.

If all else fails, get old like I did. Whatever it was that caused the headaches when I was younger no longer seems to have any effect. Good thing too. I really like red wine!

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