The world can be divided into two types of people: those who can guzzle down a bottle of red wine without any health repercussions and those who get a painful headache from just a single glass. The mystery surrounding the latter — why do some people get migraines from red wine? — involves understanding the effects of key substances found in a bottle of red.
Hangover vs. Red Wine Migraine
The first thing to know is the difference between a hangover headache and a red wine-induced migraine.
Hangovers — symptoms include headache, nausea, vomiting, thirst and dryness of mouth, tremors, dizziness, fatigue, and muscle cramps — happen because the body is digesting alcohol. According to Scientific American, wine is a type of liquor that can produce "severe hangovers."
Head pain caused by red wine is different from a hangover in one crucial way: it does not take place after heavy drinking. Those who get migraines from red wine can get pain after just a single serving and it's usually triggered by a sensitivity to the wine.
"One drink of red wine can trigger a migraine if you're sensitive to it, but one glass of red wine probably isn't going to give you a hangover," Lawrence Newman, neurologist and director of the division of headache medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, told SELF.
Sulfites Are Not to Blame
Wines contain varying levels of sulfites — a preservative with antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Kitchn has previously reported that in the EU, the regulations implement a cutoff for how much sulfites can be present in wine: 210 parts per million (ppm) for white wine, 400 ppm for sweet wines, and 160 ppm for red wine. When a bottle has "contains sulfites" on its label, it means it has more than 10 ppm of sulfur dioxide in it.
An urban legend is that sulfites are responsible for the mysterious headaches, but there's no scientific evidence linking the connection. A neurologist even told SELF that white wine can contain the same, if not higher, levels of sulfites.
What Is the Culprit?
SELF reports that tannins — a stabilizing agent present in grape skins, seeds, and stems — are likely responsible for the migraines. Generally speaking, red wine has a higher concentration of tannins since the skin is kept in the fermentation process, unlike white wine where it is removed. There are some studies that link drinking alcohol with higher levels of tannins and bad hangovers, but more research needs to be done to prove tannins are solely responsible.
Dr. Frederick G. Freitag, a headache specialist and associate professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, told the Chicago Tribune last year that tannins are responsible for migraines, as is tyramine — an amino acid that is produced by the fermentation process of wine. This naturally occurring substance has been known to trigger migraine headaches in individuals unable to break down the amino acid.
Is There a Solution or Remedy?
The Tribune reports that opting for lighter-colored wines can reduce the effects, since the lighter hue means there are fewer tannins. Also helpful is drinking two cups of coffee prior to drinking red wine, as this will constrict blood vessels and limit migraines. Lastly, the age-old advice of drinking water as you go to stay hydrated can also curb the effects of red wine.