Saturday, 3 November 2012


For those of you who suffer like I do....

Know what RWH is?  Red Wine Headache.  It can come on 15 minutes after that first sip, or 8 hours after.  I'm not talking about the headache that comes from having a few too many drinks--that's called a hangover and this is not it.  For some people, as many as 1/3 of people who try to drink red wine, this RWH sucks all the fun out of having a social glass of wine every time.  It's a common enough problem to have its' own Wikipedia page, and several posts dedicated to it on Livestrong.

I may even re-name it RWM for Red Wine Migraine, because these headaches don't tend to improve with painkillers of any kind.  They're ugly.  They're often accompanied by congestion and sinus pain.  They often strike hard and long, and come back a few times before truly disappearing.  It just sucks.

And they get me every time.

So I've looked into this.  And I've experimented with it.  Because someone had to.  It's not like I was going to give up drinking wine--hell no!

I know, I know, if wine makes my head hurt, why drink it, right?  My daughter asked me that one.  Well, I'm a mother in her 40's and I have teenagers.  This is my right of passage and I will continue to drink wine and experience this lovely right of passage for at least the next decade.  What else is a cougar-ish woman supposed to do at this point?  Am I the only one who watched Cougartown and saw some serious parallels to her own life?  Hey, I know people who have a "Big Joe" glass for wine--one cup will do ya when that one glass holds a whole bottle.  If that doesn't convince you of the right of passage, watch Penny on Big Bang Theory.  Call it a woman's prerogative.  Thou shalt drink wine.  It has been written.

I'm not promoting rampant alcoholism.  The media does that for me.  I'm just going to share some knowledge about this rather annoyingly common and vexing problem.

So what causes RWH?

The old theory was sulfites.  But that's old news and it's wrong.  Sulfites are added to food to preserve it, but there are more sulfites in white wine than red, and this headache problem is far more pronounced in red wine than white.  Besides, a reaction to sulfites would actually be an allergic reaction with hives, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea.  So that's not it.  I've actually heard that people who are allergic to sulfa-based medicines also react to sulfites in wine (don't know if it's true or not, though).  My daughter is allergic to sulfa.  Can this be used to deter her from that teenage right of passage--the drink till you puke party?


So, the other causes for RWH are suggested to be; tannins and/or amines (histamine and tyramine).

Lets talk tannins first.  Tannins exist naturally in all fruit as they act to help ripen the fruit (and give it the astringent taste), but are especially high in blueberries, pomegranates  persimmons and grapes, as well as apple juice.  They exist in wood, and are therefore high in smoked/processed foods.  And are highly concentrated in pecans, hazelnuts and walnuts.  They also exist in high amounts in chocolate (the darker, the more concentrated).  So if you don't get headaches from chocolate or nuts, its probably not the problem.

So how about histamines?  Histamines occur due to the fermentation process.  They're also released in the body as a response to allergens.  Red wine can contain up to 200% more histamines than white.  Apparently taking a Claritin before consumption can resolve this issue, or at least help identify if it is indeed the issue.  Can you imagine popping a Benadryl before a glass of wine?  Don't do that.  Wow, that would be a drunken mess.  But if you suspect it IS histamines, try taking an antihistamine just once, and see if it makes a difference.  It did for me.  Ironically, other foods that are high in histamines (and therefore you'd assume would cause similar reactions as wine does) include; avocado, parmesan cheese, eggplants, and balsamic vinegar.  Other foods that release histamines into the body include bananas, nuts, cocoa and chocolate, black and green tea, eggs, strawberries, pineapples, tomatoes and citrus fruit.  Ok, I HAVE gotten headaches from tomatoes, citrus fruit, pineapples, strawberries and nuts.  Oh, crap.  See this article on identifying a true histamine intolerance.

Histamine issues can also include stomach issues like cramping, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, local inflammation and facial flushing.  Hmmm, yes to bloating, local swelling and facial flushing.  Ohhh, no.

The studies on histamines are, unfortunately, frequently contradictory.  Some suggest there is no correlation whatsoever between histamines in foods and reactions to it.  Some studies have even suggested that rather than a true allergic response to histamines, the problem is that wine is a vasodilator and therefore causes worsening of existing allergies and rhinitis.  They suggest that this exacerbation of symptoms are the cause of RWH, but isn't that like the chicken-or-the-egg problem?  (For more on this, see this article and this NY Times article).  Livestrong has this to say about consumption of histamines.  If that doesn't confuse you, note that while taking a benadryl worked on my headache one day, it did not work the second day, and other fermented beverages like kombucha, and home-fermented foods like pickles and sauerkraut, do not seem to have the same effect on me.  I tend to drink 1-2 cups of home made kombucha per day.  However, store-bought ordinary pickles and sauerkraut CAN give me a headache.  So can white vinegar and malt vinegar.

In my case, all roads lead to histamines, I think.

And lastly, let's talk tyramines.  These occur in food as it breaks down, over ripens, spoils or ferments.  So it's in over-ripe bananas.  And the bruises in apples.  But also in aged cheese, cured meats, dried fruits, sauerkraut, soy sauce, and many other processed foods.  It is in the yeast used in condiments.  Tyramines are suspected of causing up to 40% of all migraines.  Pretty telling, huh?  They both contract and dilate blood vessels, making them a pretty obvious evil for anyone out there who also gets barometric-pressure migraines.   Younger wines contain higher doses of tyramines than aged wines, oddly enough.  Weirdest tidbit I've read on this subject so far--people who react (get a headache) from citrus fruit have a connection to tyramine sensitivity.  Hmm.  Amines are looking pretty suspect, huh?

So what if you drank a glass of wine one day and were fine, and then drank the same stuff the next night and it lead to a terrible headache?  Frustrating, right?

The long and short of it is that migraines are often caused by cumulative factors.  It may be two or three things in combination that cause your body to revolt.  It may even include outside factors like a combo of tyramine and an incoming storm, or dehydration and tannins.  It may be all of the above.

So what do you do?

Well, I'm trying to find some wines that are low in tannins and amines.  This is a serious enough issue that the wine-making world is actually experimenting with how to make decent low tannin and low amine wines with varying rates of success.  Low tannin wines are definitely out there, but ask for a low-histamine wine and they'll look at you cross-eyed.

White wines are an obvious answer to both the tannin and amine problem, but not all white wines are low in both, or either of these compounds.  Some are just as bad as reds, so buyer beware.  I'm not as big of a fan of whites as I am of reds.  As far as I'm concerned, white wines should be relegated to breakfast drinking and poolside spritzers in the summertime.  They're not as classy as reds.  But that's my personal opinion.

So what are the safest wines to drink, if you just gotta drink?

Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sauterne are low in tyramine, according to this article.  All of these and pinot grigio are low in tannins, too....  But what about reds?  Generally, the drier the wine, the more tannins in it.  California wines are on the low-tannin end of the spectrum--but high in the amine end of the spectrum.  Avoid "oaked" wines as they are all high in tannins.  Pinot Noir, Gamay, French Bordeaux, Sauternes and Merlot are safe bets to test for adverse reactions first as they are the lowest-tannin reds.

On the other hand, if the problem is histamines, white wines are generally all safe except for Chardonnays and Californian wines.  Contradictory, I know, go figure.  Fruit wines have a lower histamine content, as do rose wines.  I can't find a definitive list of low-amine reds anywhere out there.

Wines to definitely avoid include Riesling, Shiraz, Chianti, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel.

So far, here's what I've tested (oh, the suffering of having to TEST so many wines...sigh....)

"Safe" Low Tannin/Amine Wines

Sauvignin blanc (Silver Point)  

  • White from New Zealand
  • Taste is slightly sweet, best as a wine with appetizers
  • Got a 90 rating!  (though sweeter than I like, personally)
  • Great Price at $12.95

Skinny Grape Chardonnay (Round Petal)
  • White from British Columbia
  • added bonus--low cal!
  • About as sweet as the previous wine, but different fruit taste
  • good summer wine, great with club soda as a spritzer
  • great price at about $11.95

Pinot Noir (HobNob)

  • dark red, bold taste for a pinot (darker than many pinots)
  • not "oaky", vaguely sweeter than a typical pinot but not sweet
  • strong notes of dark cherry, medium body
  • great change for people who usually prefer shiraz
  • about $12.95 at LCBO
  • one day 1 no headachhe, but on day 2 this one still gave me a headache

Yellowtail Pinot Grigio
  • Australian white
  • tastes of pear and green apple, a bit less sweet than the others
  • best white so far
  • about $10.95

Copper Moon Shiraz
  • my fave red, and it causes serious headaches
  • $9.95
  • I'll say it again--ouch!

Fuzion Shiraz Malbec

  • seriously affordable wine @ $7.95
  • very tasty, mellow red
  • sometimes causes headaches, but not always
  • might be able to drink this one night, but not 2

This Livestrong link suggests that the best low-histamine alcoholic beverages are gin, rum and vodka.  Maybe for those of us who suffer the RWH, these are the best answer.  It's not the answer I was looking for, and its probably not a popular answer for many of you, either.  We'll just have to keep testing until we find one that consistently does not cause a headache.  I will continue to test and post and amend this particular blog posting as I sample my way through the entire collection of LCBO wines...  A daunting task, but someone has to do it (sigh)....

Have you found a red that doesn't cause headaches?  Let me know!  Between you and me, we can create a cohesive list of "safe" wines so that 40-something cougar-ish moms everywhere can enjoy this right of passage with as much zeal as a tv show portrays it to be (just short of alcoholism, though, because THAT would not be paleo-appropriate)

Want more info on this?  It's a big enough deal to get it's own Wikipedia page!  Yaay Livestong--always good for science info.  Use their search engine for more on tannins, amines, and many other things I haven't covered here.

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