If you have been into a wine bar or trendy wine-focused restaurant in recent years, you have likely come across natural wine. Perhaps you were surprised by the colour or the flavours. Maybe you loved it, potentially you hated it! Still not sure exactly sure what is natural wine?
Learn all about natural wine in the short wine education video below where I break down: what is natural wine, and why wine experts have such fierce, conflicting emotions about this unique new wine style.
One of the main questions I get asked when I mention my profession is: why do I get headaches from drinking white or red wine? Before I have a chance to answer, the asker generally presents me with a few explanations they have read or heard about. These theories are often misguided. So I decided to review current literature and let you know why wine is giving you headaches.
***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a three minute YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play. If you enjoy the video, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel so you never miss an episode of my weekly wine education series.
Let’s start with sulphites. Sulphites are a group of sulphur-based chemicals, which include sulphur dioxide. They are a naturally occurring by-product of wine fermentation. Sulphur is also added to many wines over the course of the winemaking process as it is a highly effective preservative against spoilage and oxidation. For these same reasons, sulphur is an ingredient in many processed foods like fruit juice, jams, flavoured yoghurts, pickled foods, mustard and dried fruits.
The European Union legal limit for total sulphur dioxide at bottling ranges between 100mg/L for organic dry red wines and 200mg/L for non-organic dry white wines – with all other organic and non organic dry wines falling between these limits. These are the maximum amounts, and most conscience winemakers are using far less nowadays. The majority of health professionals agree that, at these levels, the sulphites in wine do not cause headaches. Dried apricots can contain up to five times the sulphite levels of wine, and yet you rarely hear anyone insisting that dried fruit gives them migraines. It has been found that in roughly 1% of the population, generally people already suffering from issues like asthma, sulphites can cause breathing problems, but not headaches.
The tannin in red wine acts as an anti-oxidant, meaning that red wines generally contain less sulphur than white wines. If your wine headaches come primarily from red wine consumption, then there is even less likelihood that sulphites are to blame.
So why is wine giving you headaches? Several culprits have been identified by researchers:
People never seem to want to hear this but alcohol is often the problem. Many types of headaches are caused by simple dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it makes you pee more frequently. This causes the body to lose more fluid and become dehydrated. Happily, there are lots of simple ways to avoid alcohol-related dehydration:
Drink moderately (health officials advise limiting consumption to 1 – 2 glasses of 120 – 150mL per day, depending on sex, weight, and tolerance)
Try switching to lower alcohol wines
Avoid sweeter wine styles (the combination of sugar and alcohol in wine is said to dehydrate the body even faster)
Drink lots of water while drinking wine to make up for the fluid loss (a good rule of thumb is one glass of water for each glass of wine)
Never drink on an empty stomach (food will help dilute the effects of alcohol)
Histamines are compounds found on grape skins. These same chemicals are released by the body during an allergic reaction and cause symptoms like headaches, a runny nose, or dry, irritated eyes. Red wines tend to have have higher histamine concentrations as they are fermented with their grape skins. White wines are pressed off their skins before fermentation. So if red wines make your head throb, histamines might be to blame.
Why would histamines bother some wine drinkers and not others? Because certain people lack sufficient levels of an enzyme that breaks down histamines in the small intestines. If histamine levels are too high in the blood, they can dilate blood vessels and cause headaches. If you suspect that you might fall into this category, you could try taking a histamine blocker before a glass of red wine that has previously caused you a headache. Obviously, this cannot be your long term solution for continued red wine consumption however!
Tannins are also naturally occurring compounds, or plant chemicals, found on grape skins, stems and seeds. Just like histamines, they are present in far higher concentrations in red wine. Tannins have been found to release serotonin in the brain. At low levels serotonin gives a sense of well-being and happiness. However, at high levels, it can cause some people to develop headaches.
Highly tannic wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah or Nebbiolo, have a very firm, astringent texture on the palate. If you get the sense that these types of wines are causing you headaches try switching to white wine, or lower tannin reds like Pinot Noir, Gamay, or Grenache. Keep in mind though that many beverages and foods, like strong black tea and dark chocolate, are high in tannin. If these things don’t bother you…tannin is probably not your issue.
The Good News!
You don’t need to stop drinking wine altogether just because you are getting headaches. There are thousands of different wines and wine styles out there. It is unlikely that they will all give you a headache. Use the tips I mentioned above, and when you try a new wine, start with a small amount then wait to see the effects (usually within 20 minutes or so) and continue – with moderation – if the headache doesn’t come.
It’s an age-old scenario…we overindulge in December and then spend all of January repenting. Whether it be to atone for our excessive behaviour or simply to detox the body, Dry January has become a highly popular New Year’s Resolution in recent years.
But should we be lumping wine drinking in with all forms of alcohol consumption? Does demonizing wine for an entire month really make sense? In my humble opinion, no.
For those of you heaving a sigh of relief, you’re welcome. For others, staring agape at my reckless attitude, here are 5 great reasons to skip dry January:
***Side note: I have also made this blog post into a short YouTube video. To watch, just scroll down to the bottom & click play.
1. Overly Restrictive Diets often Lead to Binging
Many doctors, psychologists and nutritionists agree that excessive restrictions in your diet can lead to binging once the determined period of abstinence is over. People feel the need to reward themselves for their good behaviour. Even just a few glasses of wine too many once February 1st rolls around can erase the healthful benefits of a month off drinking.
2. Your Liver Doesn’t Need a Full Month Off
I will preface by saying that if you are a heavy drinker, taking an extended period of alcohol consumption is an excellent idea which can potentially lead to some positive, long term changes.
For those who generally drink moderately, but just had a couple too many Prosecco cocktails at holiday parties, the situation does not necessarily call for drastic measures like a month-long detox. In a healthy adult, the liver generally processes an ounce of alcohol every hour. This works out roughly to 5 hours for a large glass of wine. Even if your New Year’s Eve was particularly epic, your liver should have recovered within three or four days.
3. Wine is Good for You!
Again, I cannot stress moderation strongly enough here. This means 1 to 2 (approximately 150mL size) glasses of wine per day.
As I mentioned in my post on the role of alcohol in wine (see here), multiple studies show a strong correlation between modest red wine consumption and a decreased incidence of heart disease, an increase in good cholesterol, and even a slowed down pace of age-related brain decline.
4. Baby, It’s Cold Outside…
For those of us in the barren north, January is an icy cold, dark month that doesn’t need any help in being depressing. Christmas is over. Work picks up with a vengeance. Why would you want to deny yourself the pleasure of a pleasantly warming glass of wine to help you unwind after a hard day battling the elements?
5. New Year’s Resolutions Should be Sustainable
Maybe it’s just me, but I always saw New Year’s resolutions as a way we mortals try to make sustainable changes in our lives to be happier and healthier beings. Long-term success seems far more likely when we counter excess with moderation, rather than total abstinence.
So, instead of swearing off Sauvignon Blanc…why not skip Dry January and make some more enjoyable, positive resolutions instead, like:
Drinking less, but drinking better!
Instead of zero wine for a month, try not drinking for a couple of nights each week. Most health professionals agree that this will give your liver the break that it needs if you exceed the 1 to 2 glass amounts on certain nights. Also, stick to just a couple of glasses on your wine drinking days. With the money you save by drinking less, you could spend a little bit more per bottle of wine, have some fun testing out new grapes and regions, and (hopefully) enjoy your wine so much more.
And finally…you can resolve to:
Boost your wine knowledge!
Learning new things is good for your brain. It’s true! And don’t you find that you enjoy things far better when you understand a little more about them? Naturally, I am happy to help with your wine education.
So, check out my weekly wine series on YouTube: www.youtube.com/jackyblisson and if you like what you see, consider subscribing so you don’t miss an episode. Feel free to send me your comments. I’d love to hear from you.