Sep 21 2011

The Unusual Suspects.. of Red Wine Headache Syndrome

“It’s so good! Once it hits your lips, it’s so good!” .. until ten minutes later you get a massive headache and the parties over before it ever got the chance to get going.

A question that always seems to arise during wine speak with customers is why they or a friend or relative of theirs experiences discomfort or headaches after consuming even the tiniest amount of wine, usually red wine. It’s something researchers have been studying for years now and still have yet to figure out what exactly is the root cause of this phenomenon. Though, they have been able to narrow the field to several leads or “culprits” which could play a part in the picture, which include: tannins, histamines, tyramines, sulfites, and prostaglandines.

I’m obviously no bio-chemist or medical professional. But, I would be willing to bet that it’s not just one of these components specifically that is to be held universally responsible for all cases of RWHS (red wine headache syndrome as some refer to it), but instead either a single component or compound, or combination, depending on your condition specifically, which is to blame. The amount of predisposition’s we all carry – genetically acquired, or self inflicted (due to what we put into our bodies) is infinite, as is the differences between each case from person to person, as well as the rate at which this biological/physiological makeup changes – by the second, minute, hour,.. you get the point.  So, in my opinion, it’s not completely crazy that no one’s been able to find a specific reason as to why this happens to some and not others. Here’s a quick overview of the top suspects and a little bit of information on each.

Originally, scientists attributed the causes of these headaches to sulfites. Which- taking into consideration the amount of sulfites present within the average bottle of wine (about 80mg/l on average) as well as their importance within the wine making process- wasn’t the greatest of news. Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide is a preservative as well as a naturally occurring byproduct of yeasts, produced during the fermentation process. They are also produced by the human body at approximately one thousand milligrams per day. The consumption of foods that contain sulfites is relatively harmless to people (in moderation of course) as long as you carry an appropriate amount of the natural enzymes used to break these sulfites down.

Aside from being natural byproducts, sulfites are also used at various periods within the wine making process as a method of preservation. A general misconception is that red wine contains higher levels of sulfites than white wine. This is un-true. Given it’s delicacy in comparison to red wines, white wines require (as I said, generally) a higher level of preservatives due to their more-so perishable nature.

A very high percentage of wines contain some amount of sulfites. As we discussed earlier, yeasts naturally produce sulfites during fermentation. So, it’s very rare for wine to contain absolutely no traces of sulfites what so ever. And, it’s almost just as rare for wine makers NOT to add sulfites during the wine making process. What about organic wine, you say? Well, within the production of organic wine it is illegal to use sulfites. These wines also tend to smell somewhat awkward, or have subtle off-putting aromas to them. But then again, so does the majority of the organic “stuff” my friend Mike brings home. So, I guess it’s not to say that some would enjoy the, I don’t know,.. “fresh” aromas which some of these bottles exude. And really quick, because the wine geek in me just can’t let this go, the-aromas-present-are-due-to-things-called-aldehydes… within-normal-wine-making,-sulfites-bind-to-the-aldehydes-rendering-their-aromas-undiscernable-from-those-around-them. which-is-why-,without-sulfites-these-aldehydes-are-free-to-let-their-freak-flags-fly. <— [That’s me whispering as quickly as I possibly can, attempting to get everything out before you can tell me that you don’t care.]

Tannins have also been accused of being the root of the problem for RWHS. Tannins are flavonoids which attribute the bitter sensation in wine, and are imparted through the grapes pit, stem and skin. Tannins are found in many different plants, and given their “bitter” flavor, are used as defense mechanisms against predators looking for a quick snack. It’s also important to point out that tannins are found in wood. As you probably already know, a high percentage of red wine see’s wood, or “oak” as we say, during the wine making process. The use of American oak is seen to be a much more intense and aggressive technique. It’s more porous than French oak, as well as the fact that the majority of American Oak is sawed, opposed to being split- as French oak is, meaning that tannins, polyphenols such as vanillin are released  in larger quantities over shorter periods of time and impart a more aggressive, in your face quality to the wine (again, generally speaking and without touching on the toast and age of a specific barrel).  Another thing to keep in mind is that tannins bind starches together. Therefore preventing the starches to be used by the body in hopes of producing serotonin. Serotonin, among other things, is very closely related to happiness and the feeling of well being, as well as used to “[..] dilate and constrict blood vessels in the brain. When there is a serotonin deficiency, these vessels tend to constrict, thereby reducing blood flow to the brain, which will cause a migraine. (s1)” . So, if blood flow to the brain is decreased due to low levels of serotonin, which are caused (theoretically within this case) by the presence of tannins, then it would be safe to say that the tannins themselves present within the wine are to blame for your headache.  Another interesting thing is that many people (including my mother) complain of headaches when drinking the majority of American wines, but not those of European descent. Which brings us back to the argument, or possibility I may say, whereas the issue could be the structure/composition of American oak which causes RWHS, or at least in some cases.

Tyramines, histamines, prostaglandins, oh my!

Tyramines (products of amino acids) and histamines are compounds found in a variety of foods, most specifically those that have gone through some sort of fermentation. Histamines are responsible for allergic reactions in humans, while tyramines are very closely associated with headaches and hypertension- especially in women. So, it would probably be safe to assume that if a wine contained high levels of histamines (red wine can contain anywhere between twenty-to-three hundred percent more histamines than white wine), and or tyramines then the phenomenon of “red wine headache syndrome” may of finally unmasked it’s evil villain[s], right? Not so fast, says Dr. Sumit Bhutani, a board certified allergist at The Allergy & Asthma Associates in Houston, Texas, “Histamines in foods have nothing to do with allergic reactions to those foods, so the amount of histamines in foods is almost never of value to allergists. (s2)”.

As for tyramines, well, I guess the easiest way to explain how tyramines may be linked to RWHS is to first start with how monoamine oxidase (MAO) (an enzyme within the body) which regulates -amines and takes care of, or inactivates, the presence of excessive amounts of tyramines within the body. Tyramines, as stated earlier, are directly related to headaches and hypertension. So, the presence of tyramines without the, or a lack of, sufficient MAO activity, will most certainly lead to discomfort. Decreased levels of MAO activity can be caused by a various amount drugs referred to as MAO inhibitors, such as antidepressant medications- which use MAO inhibitors as a base.

Next we have..

Prostaglandins, which are structures of lipid compounds that are derived enzymatically from fatty acids- another “possible” source linked directly to the dilation of blood vessels within the body, therefore causing inflammation and thus, possibly, a “red wine headache”. Prostaglandins are most notably, within this case, known for the role they play in the contraction and relaxation of smooth muscle tissue. Specific enzymes found in wine are directly related to the suppression of the functionality of prostaglandins, therefore inducing or encouraging headache-like symptoms to occur. Now here’s where things get a bit dicey, adding a little insult to injury you might say..

It’s also been found that some strains of yeast have the ability to produce prostaglandins, AND, ANDDDDDD the presence or addition of ethanol (ethyl alcohol)  within a configuration has the ability to heighten levels of prostaglandins. So, basically, we have prostaglandins, prostaglandins, and more prostaglandins, and then the presence of alcohol which increases levels of prostaglandins and their functionality. Yeesh! If this is wherein the problem lies, then aside from cutting off alcohol consumption all together, it has been found that the ingestion of some sort of prostaglandin-inhibitor, like Aspirin, Tylenol, Ibuprofen or Advil half an hour before the consumption of wine can usually help fend off those wretched headaches before they have the chance to ruin yet another one of your joyous boozing experiences.



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