If you avoid wine—specifically red wine—because you know it’ll make your head hurt something serious not too long after the first glass, the reason may be simpler than you think, and the solution may already be in your medicine cabinet, if not at your corner convenience store. Here’s the nature of the problem, and how to fix it.
Put simply, you may just be allergic to some of the compounds often found in wine. We’re not talking about a hangover, so if you drink to the point of drunkeness and wake up with a pounding skull, that’s not allergies. If you only drink a glass and come down with a headache, the problem is likely with one of two compounds: sulfites or amines.
Grape skins not only host the yeast that ferments grapes into wine, but also contain vinegar bacteria that can spoil new wine. Some vintners add sulfites (sulfur dioxide and its salts) to help stop their goods from spoiling. Many foods have sulfites added as a preservative because they inhibit the growth of molds and bacteria, stop oxidation (browning), and also preserve wine’s natural flavor.
You may have heard of sulfites before, but here’s the catch: if you’re allergic to sulfites, you’d be allergic to other foods, like pizza crust, canned tuna, shrimp, and olives, all of which are often packaged with added sulfites to maintain freshness. If you get wine headaches but can down shrimp by the pound, sulfites aren’t your problem. Amines on the other hand:
If it’s not a hangover, and you’re not allergic to sulfites, that leaves amines, a naturally occurring compound in fermented foods and beverages. Wine contains two kinds of amines, histamines and tyramines; histamines dilate blood vessels in the brain, while tyramines constrict them. Both of these actions can cause headaches in people who are sensitive to one or both of the chemicals.
Amines are also found in certain cheeses, flour tortillas, horseradish, and a few others. If you get headaches there, you know what the problem is. At the same time though, wine often has higher concentrations of both compounds than those foods, and the more you drink the worse your headache will get.