Fifteen percent of people in the U.S. suffer from migraines—I’m one of them. Anyone who’s had a real migraine headache knows that words can’t describe how bad a migraine feels. If I had to make a list of things I’d rather do than have a migraine, you’d be surprised with what I’d put on there. My list would include things like, “I’d rather introduce Steve Bannon at an NAACP black history month event while singing Kid Rock songs than have a migraine.” Since I have a reputation to maintain, I’m not going to share my entire list (I really don’t have a list), but I will admit that I try to avoid my known triggers for migraines.
Sleep deprivation, hunger, and dehydration are my main migraine triggers—I had to have Excedrin migraine “on tap” when I was living the overnight call lifestyle as a resident in internal medicine. Aside from these triggers, certain red wines are one of the few things that will almost instantly trigger a headache for me. I first realized that red wine was the equivalent of a detonator for a bomb in my head when I was on a date a few years before I started dating my wife.
I’m going to share my story and break down the science behind migraine headaches and red wine using Eddie Murphy GIFs. There’s no deep philosophical reason for the Eddie Murphy GIFs other than he might be the greatest comedian alive right now. Hopefully, he won’t end up a hashtag like so many other comedians #nothimtoo.
The date that led to my realization that red wine triggers migraines. Here we go with the Eddie Murphy GIFs.
When I was a medical student at Northwestern, I used to study in the law library.
During a late night study session, I met a sista who was in law school. We struck up an engaging conversation that ultimately ended with plans to go on a date (hang out, kick it, or whatever people call it nowadays). As an aside, we didn’t have Netflix back in those days, so there was no “Netflix and Chill.” Since I ended up with worst the headache ever, it wasn’t a “Blockbuster night” either (I literally just mean going to blockbuster—this blog is rated PG).
At any rate, she seemed really cool, so I felt like this when I was getting dressed for the date.
In my mind, since I was a dapper young dude, she probably felt like this when she was getting ready.
That night, I took her out to the classiest restaurant in downtown Chicago I could afford on a med student budget, The Grand Lux Café. Honestly, since I used student loans to pay for dinner, that meal probably cost me $2000 due to compounding interest, but I digress.
The date started off great. There was a good conversation without awkward pauses. Up until that point, the date was filled with laughs, okays, and head-nods.
Things were cool until she found out my age. I was 22, and she was 29. I didn’t think that was much of an age gap, but she seemed to disagree—I guess cougars ‘weren’t a thing’ back then. I thought I could quell her concerns by ordering a glass of wine—wine and maturity go hand-in-hand, right? When the waiter came by, I asked for a BIG ole cup (not a glass) of Merlot (pronounced Mer-LOT).
She shook her head and proceeded to engage in the slowest, methodical eye roll in the history of eye rolls. The eye roll was so thorough, it seemed like all the eye rolls she made in her entire life were in preparation for this ocular violation of Newtonian physics.
I smoothly recovered by correcting my Mer-Lot to Mer-Low. She seemed to approve.
Despite my pronunciation faux pas, I sipped my wine like a world-class sommelier (a wine professional). I also tried to explain the history of the champagne flute like Mos Def’s character in the movie Brown Sugar. In the middle of my epic, although semi-factual champagne flute soliloquy, I started having a headache after a couple of sips of Merlot.
It wasn’t an ordinary headache. It was a “this what JOB felt like” headache. I couldn’t pay attention to anything that she said. When she was sharing her life’s story and her vision board, I was in the midst of a cerebrovascular fender bender (not a full-blown accident).
By the look on her face, I could tell she realized that something was not right.
I ended up telling her the wine gave me a migraine and I had to leave. I paid the bill before I left.
Eventually, my headache went away after taking some medication and drinking some coffee.
A couple of days later, I tried calling her for a second date. She mysteriously got really busy with school, and we never went out again.
I was sad and “in my feelings” for a brief second.
Then I talked to my Dad, and he put everything into perspective —I learned a valuable lesson about red wine and headaches.
Plus, I eventually went on to date my wife. If my wife told you about our first date, I’m sure SHE would say I looked like this.
Why does red wine cause migraine headaches?
When I recovered from my headache, this was the first question I had in mind. After a quick scan of PubMed, I found that 6 different factors are responsible for headaches associated with red wine.
People who’ve had hangovers know this without doing any research. Even in a person without a history of migraines, guzzling red wine like it’s red Gatorade is not going go well. In people who suffer from headaches, even alcohol in small amounts may trigger headaches. Alcohol in drinks other than red wine can also cause headaches.
Most of the foods associated with migraines typically contain tyramine. These foods include certain cheeses, smoked/cured meats, and dried fruits. Given the connection between red wine and headaches, researchers previously assumed that red wine contained large amounts of tyramine. However, recent studies demonstrated that the tyramine content in red wine is negligible.
Histamine is a common migraine trigger. It causes headaches by dilating blood vessels within the brain. Histamine is abundant in fermented and/or cured foods such as pickles, wines, sauerkraut, sausages, etc. Red wine has about 20-200 times more histamine than white wine. Hence, some people are more sensitive to red wine compared to white wine.
People have used sulfites or sulfur dioxide (SO2) to preserve wine for thousands of years. The Romans used to burn sulfur candles in barrels before storing wine in them. Many people cite sulfites as a cause of wine headaches. However, there aren’t any studies that support this claim. In fact, studies show that white wines contain more sulfites than red wines. Just to make it clear, sulfites probably don’t cause headaches.
Tannins are naturally occurring compounds found in plant stems, fruit skins, bark, and seeds. Tannins are responsible for red wine’s characteristic dry taste. They are also the reason for many of red wine’s health benefits. Unfortunately, tannins are both a gift and curse since they also cause headaches.
Red wine’s effect on serotonin
Abnormal processing of serotonin in the brain is one potential causes of migraine headaches. Red wine stimulates the release of serotonin from platelets, thereby increasing the risk of developing a headache in susceptible individuals.
Is there anything you can do to decrease the risk of having a headache from drinking red wine?
1. General Tips
- Don’t drink too much. Sounds silly, but a trip to Wrigleyville on a Friday night will clearly demonstrate that some folks need a reminder.
- Stay hydrated before drinking wine.
- Despite some articles on the internet, I DO NOT recommend taking aspirin, ibuprofen, or Benadryl (an anti-histamine) before drinking red wine.
Benadryl + Alcohol = a DUI or worse
Aspirin + Alcohol = a bleeding ulcer
2. Change up your wine choices
- Try white wine or rose wine
- Try low tannin red wines. Here’s a short list:
- Try low histamine red wines.
- Try using the wine wand. It’s a porous filter that may remove some of the histamines from red wine.I’ve never tried it, but others swear by it.
What’s the bottom line?
- Red wine contains compounds that may cause headaches
- I drink Pinot Noir without any issues
- Try low tannin and/or low histamine wines if you want to decrease your chances of developing a headache.
- Don’t drink too much
- Eddie Murphy is hilarious
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I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.