Do you have a friend or associate who won’t drink red wine because he says it gives him a headache? Although it might sound strange, some people have a sensitivity that makes them susceptible to headaches when they drink red wine. To learn more about the cause of “red wine headaches” and how to mitigate them, we consulted Dr. Seymour Diamond, a foremost expert on headaches and Executive Chairman of the National Headache Foundation.
VT: What chemicals in red wine are believed to be the cause of “red wine headaches?”
DD: It is believed that compounds known as phenolic flavanoids are the cause of “red wine headaches.” Phenolic flavanoids occur naturally in wine and contribute to color and mouth feel—tannins are phenolic flavanoids.
Phenolic flavanoids come from grape skins/stems/seeds and the oak barrels in which wine is aged. Red wine has more of these compounds than white wine because the process used to produce red wine leaves the grape juice in contact with the skins/stems/seeds for a longer period of time. Darker reds, such as Cabernets, are more likely to trigger a headache in sensitive individuals because the darker reds generally contain more of these compounds.
Another group of compounds known as cogeners are also believed to contribute to “red wine headaches.” Congeners are a by-product of fermentation and are present in higher quantities in red wine as compared with white wine. Congeners play a role in producing hangover symptoms.
VT: How do phenolic flavanoids and congeners cause “red wine headaches?”
DD: In sensitive individuals, they cause the dilation of blood vessels. When this happens inside one’s head, the increased volume of blood creates increased pressure which causes a headache.
VT: Other than avoiding wine altogether, is there something one can do to lessen the chance or severity of a “red wine headache?”
DD: Drinking slowly may help. Consuming honey or fructose (which is in fruit and fruit juice) is also recommended as they can help neutralize the effects of a “red wine headache.” Additionally, the consumption of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent (Motrin, Nuprin, and Aleve) before drinking may also decrease the severity of a “red wine headache.”