Glass of red wine pictured from above.
Red wine headaches are a known phenomenon.

Have you ever suffered from red wine headaches? Do you wonder if it’s to do with sulphites? Do you sometimes experience other allergic symptoms after drinking a glass of wine, particularly if it is red? If any of this sounds familiar, you could have an intolerance to histamine, or possibly amines. If you have experienced allergic symptoms like sneezing, itchy skin (or even rashes) as well as the well-documented headaches, then your sensitivity is likely significant.

Why does red rather than white cause headaches?

Close up image of glasses of white wine at a tasting.
White wine usually contains more sulphites and less histamine.

These symptoms are regularly blamed on the use of sulphites in wine. However, most people’s complaints centre around red wine. So, if it’s due to SO2 here’s the irony; red wine usually contains lower levels of sulphur than white, but much higher levels of histamine. In general, red wine can have up to 200% more histamine than a glass of white! Research is suggesting that people who suffer from red wine headaches may have an enzyme deficiency that does not allow them to metabolize histamine, causing a build-up in their system that leads to their discomfort. 

Close up on histamine

Market stall showing cheeses that are often high in histamine and tyramine.
Histamine is found in foods that are fermented and aged.

So, let’s take a closer look at histamine. It is a chemical that your body produces in response to inflammatory and allergic reactions. However, it occurs in a wide range of foods and drinks, especially those that are fermented and aged. Therefore, along with wine, things like beer, kimchi, sauerkraut and aged cheeses are all examples of high in histamine products. 

Introducing the lesser known troublemaker

However, a second culprit can work alongside histamine. This is another amine, known a tyramine. While histamine dilates your blood vessels, causing headaches, inflammation and flushed skin, tyramine initially constricts blood vessels. Subsequently, it then dilates them, leading to a rise in blood pressure. Thus, perpetuating (or even causing) the resulting headache. In fact, Tyramine is often cited as one of the key triggers behind migraines.

Close up of two bottles of red and one bottle of rose on a table set for lunch.
4% of the population suffers with histamine intolerance

So, it seems that sulphites are not such bad guys after all. Although stats show approximately 1% of the population will have an allergy to sulphites, up to 4% of people are likely to be intolerant to histamine.

In the next part of this blog, we will look more closely at why wine appears to cause headaches more frequently than food. We will also examine where histamines come from and if there is a solution for those of us who love our wine, but don’t love headaches.


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