Plenty of myths and misinformation exists about headaches and wine drinking. The most important of which is that Sulfites are what commonly give wine drinkers headaches.

Sulfites

Sulfites are a natural component created by yeast during wine fermentation, but are also added to most wines to prevent fermentation after bottling.  Most wines from all countries contain sulfites, even if a warning label is not present.  Many years ago, the FDA determined that about 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites, so a law was passed to require a warning label on all wines sold in the U.S.  People allergic to sulfites have an allergic reaction when drinking wine but are not prone to headaches from the reaction.  Asthma sufferers are most at risk for sulfite allergies and bad reactions.

Many people do, however, experience headaches when drinking red wine.  If red wine causes a headache but not white wine, this is surely not the result of sulfites, since white and sweet wines generally contain more sulfites than red wines. Dried fruits also contain sulfites but do not reportedly cause headaches, either.

“No Sulfites Added” (NSA) wines are available for anyone concerned or interested in testing whether or not Sulfites are responsible for their headaches.  Badger Mountain produces a popular line of No Sulfites Added wines in the Northwest.

The stigma surrounding alcohol consumption contributes to a lack of knowledge about what truly is the culprit causing red wine headaches.  Small studies have tested many theories surrounding chemicals present in red wines.  Unfortunately there is a stigma associated with the study of alcohol consumption, which limits the number of motivated scientists and funding sources for larger studies.

Tannin

Tannins are a powdery natural substance found on the skins of things such as peaches, apples, cows, grapes and oak trees.  They are most recognizeable as having a pronounced drying affect on the palate (like having cotton placed on your gums).  Tannins enter wines when the grapes are crushed and the juice runs over the other grapes in the tanks, or when wines are aged in newer oak barrels. 

Some people have blamed tannins for headaches, since many red wines contain a relatively large amount of this naturally occurring “flavonoid” component (a powerful antioxidant), and tannins are not present in most white wines.  Tannins have the chemical effect on the body of releasing serotonin into the brain, which does cause headaches in those people prone to migraines.  See more information about tannins here.

Today, new medications for migraine headaches are widely available and can help stave off headaches from wine before they occur (in migraine sufferers). However, this still doesn’t fully explain why people who do not suffer from migraines still get red wine headaches.

If you wish to test your sensitivity to tannins, drink tea and eat soy or dark chocolate…each of these items contains significant tannins.

Tannins are healthy for humans.   They help lower cholesterol, adjust the balance between good and bad cholesterol, stimulate the immune system, lower cancer risk & more.  So don’t give them up lightly.

Alcohol

It seems obvious but often overlooked that simply drinking alcohol will cause headaches.  The alcohol causes abnormal and changing moisture content in the brain, producing pressure.  Over-consumption is most often the cause of headaches, and there is a solution for those who consume too much or worry about an upcoming headache…drink a tall glasses of water and take two aspirin prior to drinking wine.  Alternate drinking one glass of water between glasses of wine.

The water will help reduce the dehydration that occurs from the alcohol, and the aspirin will have time to take effect before the symptoms appear. Studies have shown that taking aspirin after the headache appears has no effect.

Armed with this information, you should be able to test your limits and avoid headaches whenever possible.

Healthy Wine

A combination of religious objections and prohibition can be credited with a persevering stigma attached to drinking alcohol in the United States that unfortunately still plagues the wine industry in modern times. Technology and research is now in the beginning stages of reversing that stigma with proof that moderate wine consumption can be healthy and beneficial.

It’s been more than 10 years since a famous 60 Minutes episode introduced the “French Paradox”, a phenomenon linking moderate red wine consumption in France to their 40% lower rate of heart attacks compared to Americans. It has since been conclusively shown that wine consumption reduces risk of heart attacks by 25-45%.

Antioxidants, naturally occurring compounds in wine, form the human body’s first line of defense against cancer. These Antioxidants are also believed to prevent the deposition of cholesterol in arteries, reducing rates of heart disease.

Alcohol boosts HDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease and reducing arterosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries). 

The British Medical Journal in 1995 noted that wine is more effective as an antibacterial agent than the active ingredient in Pepto Bismol, eliminating food-borne bacteria that cause stomach illnesses. A 1988 study of an outbreak of Hepatitis A found that 70% of wine drinkers did not become ill, while a majority of patients drinking beer or no alcohol became sick. This was one of the first studies where alcohol was shown to be an effective protection against not only bacteria, but certain viruses also.

There is no cure for Macular Degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in people over 65. But one study showed people who drink wine are 20% less likely to suffer from this condition. 

Moderate consumption is may also be effective in helping prevent obesity and kidney stones, increasing blood-sugar control in diabetics, defending against some STDs and preserving mental clarity (slowing Alzheimer’s) as we age.

What is “Moderate” consumption?

Always talk to your doctor before making dietary decisions. But generally 14 oz. of wine daily for men and 8 oz. of wine daily for women (one standard serving in a glass is 6 oz.) are moderate amounts that achieve the beneficial effects described here.  See the American Heart Association’s recommendations here.

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