One of the most common complaints I hear about wine consumption is its relationship with headaches. Most people attribute said headaches to sulfite compounds, and you hear a lot of white wine drinkers proclaim that "sulfites in red wine give them headaches". There is little or no correlation between sulfites and wine headaches.
Sulfites occur naturally in the human body and many foods, including grapes. Sulfites are also very commonly added as a preservative during the production of almost every red and white wine. In fact, its use is quite common in a variety of other food products such as dried fruits and vegetables, jams, shellfish, soy products, processed cheese, and bread products such as pizza crust and tortillas.
The International Organization of Vine and Wine puts the maximum sulfite level of wine at 350 mg/L. The average sulfite content of wines is 10 mg/L. Dried fruit contains significantly more sulfites. For example, 1 dried apricot will have upwards of 16 mg of sulfites.
The World Health Organization has established the acceptable daily intake of sulfites to be 0.7 mg/kg of body weight (0.32 mg/lb), and several studies have shown individuals consuming up to 400 mg of sulfites per day for several weeks with no adverse health effects.
That being said, some people are allergic to sulfites and will experience adverse effects from their intake. The most common reaction in those affected are asthma attacks, though there are instances were people will experience hives, angiodema (swelling and redness of the skin), or even anaphlyaxis. In some very rare instances, people are born with the inability to metabolize sulfites to sulfates, a conversion completed rather rapidly by most people's bodies. This disease is extremely crippling and those suffering this problem rarely reach adulthood.
So, What's the Problem?
It turns out there are several different causes for wine-related headaches. Scientists have yet to determine all the different compounds involved, though a handful associated with red wine have been identified.
The first is an allergic reaction to biogenic amines, such as histamine and thryamine. These can cause dilation of brain blood vessels. Though concentrations of these compounds in red wine are usually not high enough to induce headaches alone, but can create the 'perfect headache storm' for some in combination with the wine's ethanol and phenolic compounds. Ethanol suppresses diamine oxidase, an enzyme in our bodies that inhibits biogenic amines, while phenolic compounds suppress phenolsulfotransferase (PST), which inactivates biogenic amines and catacholamines in our body.
Other wine drinkers may experience allergic reactions to minute amounts of fining agents that may make it into the bottle. Fining agents will be discussed in detail in a later article, but can include such products as egg whites. Obviously, these are quite drinker-specific and many argue that concentrations are far to small to cause problems.
Another link between red wine and headaches is the release of prostaglandins, a chemical involved in blood vessel dilation. Again, some people are more susceptible than others. Luckily, there is an easy way to prevent this from ruining your night with a nice bottle of Cabernet; take some prostaglandin synthesis inhibitors! Any over the counter anti-inflammatory such as Tylenol or Advil should do the trick.