Red Wine Headache

When we last left our young hero he was valiantly fighting a smear campaign launched against the humble sulfite (he never supported Bachmann!). I was speaking about how sulfites are often cited as the cause of Red Wine Headache (RWH for the sake of my brittle digits), and how that is, in a word, notparticularlyaccurate.

So what, we then ask ourselves, might be the cause of that dull throbbing some people get when they sip on that glass of Ole Tooth Stainer Reserve Merlot? Well first it’s important to talk about what RWH actually is. What is it not is a hangover, right? Those are caused by dehydration, a surplus of nasty byproducts of metabolizing too much alcohol, and the slow realization that you just woke up in a room full of marionettes and Captain America posters. RWH happens while you’re consuming, so whatever is causing it needs to act pretty quickly. Also important to note is that we’re looking for a culprit that is going to be prevalent in red wine. The acronym is not WWH. That is reserved for far more important matters.

First up to bat we have tannins. Those of you who are familiar with my previous nonsense blog posts, already know the score on these guys, and you already know that they’re going to be found in reds not whites. Now some studies have suggested that tannins induce serotonin production and that this can trigger brain-pain in people who already suffer from migraines. The problems with this theory are fairly clear: First and most obviously, not everybody who suffers from RWH is predisposed to migraines. Second and slightly less obvious is the abundance of tannins in all sorts of other stuff like tea, chocolate, cinnamon and fruits. Finally and somewhat intuitively, does this mean that headaches can be controlled by choosing wines specifically low in tannins? If I give you a mouth-blasting young Châteauneuf-du-Pape, will it trigger a more violent headache than a Russian River Pinot? What about something fermented using carbonic maceration? No, I’m afraid I’m not willing to accept that tannins are responsible just yet.

Another fun option is histamines. Normally they are just part of your body’s natural department of homeland defense, raising the threat level to orange when a pathogen is detected and inconveniencing travelers by way of inflammation/flushing. Those of us fortunate enough to experience severe allergies know what it’s like to have these little buggers working overtime, and as luck would have it, red wine is chock full of the stuff! The only problem with this is that multiple studies have shown that there is no real detectable difference between a “low histamine wine” and a “high histamine wine,” so we’re back to the drawing board. That said, if you know you have a sensitivity to histamine, go ahead and try sipping some tea before you indulge in a glass of vino. Besides helping you pretend to be the Duke of Something, the quercetin in the tea is said to help ease the effect of the histamines.

So what do we have left? One promising option is prostaglandins. These are fatty acid compounds that can cause pain as well as constricted blood flow. They occur naturally in wine and can be counteracted quite simply with a painkiller like Ibuprofen (protip: avoid acetaminophen as it can react with alcohol and punch holes in your liver faster than a weekend getaway with Charlie Sheen). I like this one. It’s straightforward, not dependent on an existing condition, and conspicuously devoid of any mention of Thetans. Maybe we’re getting somewhere here.

Anything else besides trying wines lower in tannin, sipping tea, and old-fashioned painkillers? If you stay hydrated, drink in moderation and avoid in-laws, and you might just have a chance at avoiding RWH.

That’s it for this week. Comment below and tell me what you think! Have a question about wine or a commonly held wine belief that you’d like explained? Let me know and I may just write about it.