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Red wine headache

Provided by: Sun Media
Written by: DR. GIFFORD JONES -- Toronto Sun
Jan. 10, 2006

Sulfites, serotonin and histamines -- oh my

"Oh my aching head! Why did I drink so much last night?" That's a question many people will ask tomorrow morning. Some headaches will result from too many martinis, beers or scotch-and-sodas. That's a hangover. But you've magnified the odds of a blistering headache if you recklessly imbibed in too much red wine. What is it about red wine that carries such a blow to the head?

Recently I spent an evening with friends that included dinner and wine. "Should I order red or white wine?" I asked. One of the women replied, "Red wine gives me a headache." This made the choice easy -- a Chardonnay.

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Few dispute that the red wine headache (RWH) is a reality. But the causes of it are as varied as the cure for hiccups. Some point a finger at the sulfites that occur naturally during fermentation. In fact, wine makers often add more as a preservative.

But the theory that sulfites are to blame has been debunked in recent times. Studies show that 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites. This means they lack the digestive enzyme that handles the processing of sulfites present in many foods.

But did my friend have a sulfite allergy? It's highly unlikely, as she was able to drink two glasses of Chardonnay without any reaction. And white wines often contain more sulfites than red wine. Moreover, she ate meat and cheese that evening and both contain sulfites.

Dr. Fred Freitag, of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, says, "Sulfites can cause an allergic reaction, but they give headaches only to asthmatics. The more common reaction to sulfites is a breathing problem."

The Harvard Medical Letter points its finger at tannins as a possible cause. Tannins, present in grape skins, give red wine its distinctive pleasant and slightly bitter flavour. Studies show that tannins trigger blood platelets to release serotonin. Increased amounts of serotonin can cause headaches. But this cause can also be shot down in flames. Foods such as soy, tea and chocolate also contain tannins and I've never heard of a chocolate headache.

Then there's the histamine theory. White wine is made from the grape's juice while red wine uses the entire grape. Grape skin contains histamine and red wine has up to 200 times more histamine than white wine. But alas, the French who know their wines cast doubt on this theory. French researchers report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology that people exhibited no difference in reaction to wines with either a high or low histamine content.

So what should my friend do so she can enjoy red wine with others?

Dr. Frietag, also a sufferer of red wine headache, offers a solution. He reports he can drink some reds and not others. For instance, he's able to imbibe in almost every California wine, but only certain wines from France. However, he adds, some of his patients can only drink French reds! So if you suffer from RWH, so much for that theory.

The Harvard Health Letter suggests that if tannins are the culprit, you should try a wine with a lower tannin content such as Beaujolais instead of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Other experts speculate that many people today are drinking young California red wines, having heard of the health benefits of this nectar. Young wines tend to have more of the substances that cause headaches but some of these become inert with age. The answer, they say then, is to drink older wines to reduce the risk of exposure to RWH.

As I write this column, I feel a throbbing headache coming on without even smelling a glass of wine. I'm frustrated that after hours of research I still can't find a definite cause of red wine headache.

But one expert did offer a practical solution. "Try half a glass of red and wait 15 minutes," he said. "If the head remains free of pain, the wine passes the test."

Too bad I don't suffer from RWH. What better way to spend an evening of research, experimenting with one wine after another.

My best wishes for a happy and healthy 2006.

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