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Wine Headaches: Investigating The Culprits Of The Dreaded Wine Hangover

We’ve all been there: it’s Friday night and time to wind-down after a long, steaming week of work (we assume). In comes a bottle of our favourite wine but with it a heavy price: the dreaded wine hangover – so common in fact that it has been coined its own acronym, the RWH (Red Wine Hangover). If you’re one of the few that are completely immune to this, you could probably go ahead and skip this article; but for the rest of us mortals looking to better understand and tackle this conundrum, this is your go-to piece for facts and myth busting on the causes of your wine headaches.

What’s causing your wine hangover?

Myth Breaker: Sulphites in wine cause hangovers

The court is out on sulphites in wine, and the verdict: not guilty! So then, why the big hoo-ha on sulphites?

Simply put: sulphites are to wine as gluten is to food.

While a small percentage of people do suffer from sulphite allergies, experts say that is highly unlikely that sulphites are the culprit to RWH. In fact, Dr. Frederick G. Freitag, a headache specialist and associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said a headache is not a common symptom of allergies.

Most people have regarded sulphites with hostility, much like any additive you might find in other processed foods. However, sulphites are a commonly used industrial preservative to prevent foods from browning, found in dried fruits, chips, raisins, soy sauce and even salad bars. But you don’t ever hear of people complaining of Salad Bar Headaches, do you?

A study published in 2008 [1] in the Journal of Headache and Pain regarding alcohol and headaches found that even in individuals with asthmatic sulphite sensitivity have not shown to show symptoms of a headache. The study also goes on to say, “On the other hand, there are many foods such as dried fruits, chips, raisins, soy sauce, pickles and juice fruits containing [a high] concentration of sulphites [sic] even ten times higher than that of wine.”

But with that said, many people still do experience RWH when drinking red wine, and while the science is still unclear as to the culprits, experts have narrowed down the possible suspects to our dreaded headaches.

Toasting with red wine

Suspect 1: Histamines in wine may induce headaches

Histamines have been shown to cause inflammation and dilation of blood vessels (vasodilation). Dan L. Keiller, president of the formed Medical Wine Interest and Education Society in San Diego, pointed to several studies from Europe that show that “red wines, in general, contain more histamine than Champagnes or sparkling wines and those usually contain more histamine than [still] white wines.” [2] This is partly due to the longer fermentation time in red wine making compared to white wines and rosés, where it has been found that histamines in red wine have been measured to be up to 200% higher in red wine, than what you commonly find in white wine. This may be the cause of RWH, in combination with other physiological factors. However, histamines are present in most of the fermented foods such as sauerkraut, smoked or cured meats, citrus fruits and aged cheese. Some experts have even hinted at avoiding pairing your wine with cheese in order to reduce the risk of RWH……but personally I’d take the risk.

Suspect 2: Sensitivity to Tyramine

While Histamines are attributed to causing vasodilation within the blood vessels, Tyramine serves up a double whammy: it is responsible for initially constricting and then dilating the blood vessels, causing blood pressure to rise just enough to cause a headache.

Tyramine is a naturally occurring amino acid often produced by fermentation. It can affect blood pressure and has been known to trigger migraine headaches in people who can’t break down the substance, Freitag said. However, while most studies have shown the links between oral consumption of Tyramine and the occurrence of headaches, there has been growing dissent voiced among the scientific community [3] about direct causation of Tyramine and headaches, which warrants more research and investment in order to fully delve into the complicated chemistry in wine.

Suspect 3: Intolerance to Phenolic compounds such as Tannins

We explored the wonderful world of tannins and the role it plays in developing the bouquet and mouth-feel of good wines in our articles about wine ageing. Put simply, tannins are naturally-occurring chemical compounds found primarily within grape skins, stems and seeds that help prevent wine oxidation, and ensures the development of a full bouquet as the wine ages. However, tannins are also notoriously known to have an astringent, mouth-drying effect, similar to that of cinnamon or black tea.

Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California at Davis, explains that tannins are absorbed into the bloodstream and metabolised by the body to open the blood vessels, which is “a key step in getting a headache,” Waterhouse said.

However, many have pointed to the fact that black tea and chocolate also contain tannins, but do not produce the same RWH effects. This could be due to a combination of the physiological and chemical nature of wine, as well as our mental state, where it has been found that in combination with tannins, stress may catalyse the occurrence of headaches, which is why you may get headaches after a hard day’s work, but not on your tropical holiday.

Red wine glass in a vineyard

So what can you do to prevent wine headaches?

While no research has conclusively identified the suspects to the dreaded RWH, there are measures that can be taken to minimize the risk of headaches, chief of which is as clear-cut as drinking less or not at all (but where’s the fun in that), or simply drink water throughout the evening as well.

Alcohol is notoriously known to cause dehydration the more you consume. A quick and proven method to reduce any headaches (and hangovers, yay!) would be to drink a glass of water for every glass of wine.

So go ahead and continue to enjoy that glass of red but be smart about it, there’s no shame in having water with your wine and your body will thank you for it the next day!


[1] Alessandro Panconesi, “Alcohol and migraine: trigger factor, consumption, mechanisms. A review,” Journal of Headache and Pain, 2008.

[2] Gibb C, Glover V, Sandler M, Davies PTG, Clifford Rose F Littlewood JT, “Red wine as a cause of migraines,” 1988.

[3] Lassen LH Olesen J, “Experimental headache induced by histamine, meta-chlorphenylpiperazine, and reserpine. ,” Philadelphia, 1995.

The Author

Kaylyn Chandran