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By Jennifer Cossey

“I sometimes get terrible headaches when I drink red wine. Why? Someone mentioned that I might be allergic; can this be true? Please say no! I love red wines, except of course, for the headaches.”  - Sarah, Amity

The simple answer to your question is there is no simple answer. You’re probably not allergic to red wine as a whole, but you could be allergic or intolerant to something in the wine or perhaps something else all together.

Red wine headache or RWH, as it is referred to, has been a hot topic for several years. People originally blamed RWH on the sulfite content in red wine, but this theory has more or less been disproved in part because sulfites are also ever present in white wines. However, there are other elements in red wine that may be causing your adverse reaction and here are just a few:

Histamines: Histamines (those chemical substances floating around in the natural world that make us sneeze) are natural and unavoidable. They are present in grapes and a bi-product of fermentation. When combined with alcohol, histamines can sometimes cause cranial swelling and headaches to those sensitive to them. Solution: Some take an anti-histamine (please consult your doctor) before drinking or have cup of black tea. Both have shown to reduce the occurrence and severity of histamine-induced headaches.

Over-consumption: How many is too many? Well, that varies depending on your weight, metabolism, how much you ate, if anything, before drinking. Additional spirits you may have imbibed can also contribute to over-consumption. Solution: Drink less alcohol. Drink more water. Eat when you drink, and don’t drink red wine after several Manhattans.

Alcohol Content: Red wine generally has a higher alcohol content than white and alcohol can naturally lead to headaches (see Over-consumption). Also, if you have seasonal allergies, alcohol may enhance your symptoms.  Solution: Look for lower alcohol wines, staying at or under the 14 percent range and avoid red wines when your allergies flare up.

Tannins: Tannins have been known to cause headaches; the naturally occurring astringent compounds come from grape skins and other sediment during wine production. Tannins are more prevalent in reds because of the grape skin contact — making the red wine red — and the extended use of barrels, which can pull tannins from the wood.

Solution: Drink wine from thinner-skinned grapes such as Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Gamay Noir or look for wines that are un-oaked.

Headache, hangover … they are not the same, so pay close attention to what the real culprit is. If a wine gives you a RWH, it will usually do so within 15 minutes of drinking and with only about half a glass. The real solution is: Try many wines from different regions and varietals until you find the one that works — in other words, one that doesn’t give you a headache.

As a side note, spending a little more money on wine is another way to reduce headache occurrence. Quality over quantity is the way to go. The more additives used to cover up a flawed or low quality wine, the higher the likelihood of drinking something that doesn’t suit your system.

Cheers, Jennifer Cossey.

I look forward to receiving more of your questions. E-mail me at to submit your questions and I’ll see you next month! 

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