Q: Is it true that full-bodied, high-alcohol wines cause headaches?—Francis, Knoxville, Tenn.
A: There are myriad causes of headaches, including but not limited to illness, stress, loud noises, sleep deprivation and foods and beverages such as red wine and aged cheese. According to Dr. Kiran Rajneesh, a neurologist at The Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, there are many possible headache triggers in wine to consider, but there are also some easy possible remedies.
Sulfites have long been erroneously linked with headaches and hangovers, but these naturally occurring compounds, also used to prevent spoilage, are not unique to wine and allergic reactions to them are rare. Dr. Rajneesh advises wine lovers to consider alcohol content when looking for a headache culprit.
"Alcohol is one of the triggers for headaches, and there are many different theories of how alcohol does that," he said. "The biggest one is that alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you lose water, and we know dehydration causes headaches." He encourages patients to stay hydrated by also drinking water during and after consuming alcohol.
Tannins are naturally occurring compounds in wine (as well as tea, coffee and chocolate) that have also been linked to headaches, but evidence is scant. "White wine [which has fewer tannins than red wine] is far less associated with headaches and especially migraine headaches compared to red wine," Dr. Rajneesh said. "When patients say they notice headaches with red wine, we'll first look at the confounders, then ask them to switch to white wine."
Those confounders make Dr. Rajneesh hesitant to fully blame headaches on wine. Aged cheese and dark chocolate, both of which are often paired with red wine, can also trigger headaches, along with many, many other factors. He advises patients to keep a journal to help identify all possible triggers.
Due to the potential health benefits of red wine, Dr. Rajneesh prefers to help patients find solutions to common headaches rather than give up moderate wine consumption. Wine lovers should consult their physician to find the best ways to incorporate wine as part of a healthy diet.—Shawn Zylberberg