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Why Does Wine Cause Headaches?

Posted by Migraine Relief Center on Dec 16, 2014 7:00:00 AM

Some alcoholic beverages tend to be more traditional than others during the holiday season. We think about eggnog and hot toddies because they are associated with colder weather, but the most typically consumed alcoholic beverage of the holiday season is derived from harvested and fermented grapes.

At the dining tables of several American households, wine is introduced during on Thanksgiving Day, usually right before the traditional dinner, during the meal and after dessert. From that day on, wine becomes a mainstay during meals and at social gatherings through Christmas and New Year's Eve. This is certainly good news for winemakers and wine lovers, but for other people this means falling victim to headaches.

The most common headaches associated with wine consumption are caused by drinking too much of it. We call the uncomfortable and collective side effects of drinking too much alcohol as hangovers, and it is only natural for migraine patients to experience episodes as a result of imbibing wine in excess. The overall discomfort caused by hangovers results in stress, which is an undisputed trigger of migraine episodes. Still, some people get headaches after drinking just one glass of wine, particularly when it is made from dark-colored grapes.

The Fallacy of Sulfites

There are certain chemical compounds found in wine that many people incorrectly blame for headaches. Sulfites occur naturally, and they help prevent the growth and development of microbial colonies. Common side effects of sulfites include ashtma and allergies, but they are not known to cause headaches. To this end, people who suffer from asthma are often advised to steer clear of wine.

Winemakers who add sulfites to their products beyond those that naturally develop therein do so to extend shelf life and to avoid ruining the palatable taste they intend. At any rate, sulfites are not the culprit of onset headaches that take place after enjoying just one glass of wine. Instead, high levels of tyramine and histamine, substances released by our bodies in response to allergic reactions, are to blame for these headaches.

The Red Wine Headache Syndrome

As it happens, dark-colored grapes are more likely to contain higher levels of histamine that some people are unable to metabolize. This is caused by an enzyme insufficiency, and the result is a vascular syndrome. Red wine is not the only substance that would cause this vascular issue; to wit, the following foods have a similar effect:
  • Cured meats
  • Citrus fruits
  • Aged cheeses
  • Smoked salmon

The food items above will be familiar to some migraine patients, particularly those who know that their headache episodes will be triggered by smelling or eating certain foods. We can easily add many red wines of varying vintages to this list because they require sulfites to be added during the aging and bottling process. In some cases, organic wines tend to have lower levels of sulfites and are less likely to cause the dreaded red wine syndrome, but these wines will certainly present a different taste and their cost will differ as well.

The Bottom Line for Wine Drinkers and Migraines

Wine lovers who live with migraine conditions do not have to completely cut themselves off from wine. The first general rule would be to not drink too much wine; for that matter, it is wise not to drink too much liquor. The second rule would be to avoid red wines unless they are organic and labeled as containing no added sulfites. For most migraine patients, getting a headache after drinking one glass of wine will very likely trigger an episode, and this is mostly caused by the stress that accompanies all headaches. To this end, migraine patients who are prescribed antihistamine medications for their allergies or as part of their preventative treatment plan should pay special attention to their wine consumption.

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Topics: Causes

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