Let’s start with sulfites; this is the easiest to address. Sulfites are in a wide variety of foods and are primarily used as a preservative, as they are in wine. On ingredient labels there are a number of terms used to refer to sulfites including sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, sulfur dioxide and potassium sulfite, among others. In doing a quick survey of my pantry, I found a few items containing sulfites including maraschino cherries and cereal. Since 1986, the United States has been alone among countries mandating the addition of the words “Contains Sulfites” to all wine bottles sold within its borders. This law was enacted only slightly before the one requiring the “Government Warning” you also see on wine bottles. The bottom line? Both of these warnings are there because in the late 1980s there was a strong “no drinking” campaign in full swing and it was hoped that these labels might deter people from drinking so casually. It has nothing to do with a concern for your health, otherwise similar warnings would be on items such as trail mix, fruit juice, soy sauce and french fries (all of which contain far more sulfites than a bottle of wine). Of course, there is a small percentage of the population that does react negatively to sulfites, but if you have no problem downing super size fries, this probably isn’t you. (Quite unbeknownst to me, my friend and colleague over at the Wall Street journal just published an excellent article about why sulfites isn't the culprit.)
So what about tannins? Tannin is found naturally in many plants. Walnuts, pomegranates, cinnamon, dark chocolate and red beans are all plant products that are high in tannin. Black tea is a particularly good example as it is almost pure tannin. Tannins are in every wine, even white wine, but primarily come from the grape skins so they are definitely more prominent in red wines. More than that, some wines are more tannic than others. Nebbiolo and cabernet sauvignon, for example, are very high in tannin, while barbera, pinot noir and zinfandel are low in tannin. Again, there is a percentage of the population that reacts poorly to tannins, but it’s a very small percentage and again, if you don’t have a problem with any of the above foods, tannin is probably not the culprit.
So if it’s not tannin or sulfites, what else could be causing those headaches? To answer that, let’s look at the composition of wine. Wine is made up of 80-90% water. Compounds like tannin and sulfite, along with all sorts of other flavor and structural elements typically make up about 2%. So what’s the other 8-18%? Alcohol. In my experience it’s actually the alcohol that is the most likely culprit for the “wine headache.” Now I’m well aware that many people claim it is wine and only wine--and typically red wine--that causes headaches. They have no issues with tequila shots or rum and cokes, but give them a glass of wine and it’s all over.
Before I go further, I have to remind you all that I am not a doctor. Not of medicine, not of philosophy, not of pepper. This is not a medical opinion or a diagnosis. I don’t even have a scientific study on my side. Though it wasn’t for lack of trying. The several studies I read in various medical publications like the Journal of Headache and Pain and Food and Chemical Toxicology all ended up fairly inconclusive with the primary suggestion being that more study needs to be done to really understand it. The best possible culprit I found from those studies is an enzyme called SULT1A, whatever that is. So that’s certainly a possibility. But here is my hypothesis: Drinks like vodka and whiskey are what we call spirits. They are called this because the distillation process produces three things from whatever is being distilled: the head, the tail and the heart, or spirit. The spirit is the best part of the alcohol and is what all distillers are aiming to get and why some products are distilled over 100 times and filtered through diamonds [I’m not kidding about the number of distillations. There’s one company who calls their vodka CLIX, roman numerals for the number of distillations they use: 159. And I’m not joking with the diamonds. I read about one company who’s doing this. Anyway.]
Here’s where it gets a little technical. The spirit is a purer alcohol containing mostly ethanol. Ethanol is the good alcohol. The heads and tails, however, contain other types of alcohols called fusel oils-- such as methanol-- which are toxic (not lethal, just not good for you). That’s why you don’t want the heads and the tails. It’s my theory that it’s the alcohol in the heads and tails that cause headaches. Not all spirit companies do a good job obtaining the spirit and leave in a lot of the heads and tails. This is why drinks made from lower quality spirits can give the same type of headache we’re talking about.
Wine, on the other hand, is not distilled at all, just fermented. And while the total percentage of alcohol in wine is much lower than that found in spirits, it contains all the types of alcohol: the spirit, as well as the heads and the tails. This means that wine contains a higher percentage of those toxic alcohols.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains, people do get headaches from drinking red wine, so is there anything we can do about it? Since our bodies don’t process alcohol well, especially bad alcohol, there are definitely a couple tips.
- Drink lots of water. Water helps dilute the alcohol in your digestion making it easier for your body to process.
- Drink slowly. The slower you drink the better your body can keep up. Remember, headaches are one way your body tells you it’s having a problem. If you drink slower, you give your body a chance to process what you put into it.
- Drink better. Sadly, this is the toughest, but probably the most effective, solution. It’s been my experience that the better the product, the fewer the side effects. As I mentioned above, higher quality spirits tend to produce fewer headaches and the same is true of wine. This one I can’t quite explain, but there’s definitely something to it.