Monday, October 22, 2012

The Battle of the Red Wine Headache (RWH)

“You need to start drinking,” a lactation consultant insisted during a home visit. I had been having trouble nursing my firstborn; the hospital had offered to send an expert over to provide advice about nursing a pre-mature infant. She determined that I was too uptight, and that’s why the milk wouldn’t flow.

“Won’t alcohol hurt the baby?” My fatigue-stricken eyes glanced nervously at my son.

“Just a glass or two of wine. I’m not telling you to get drunk.” Her voice held a care-free quality. “It’ll help both of you to relax.”

So, I started drinking; ‘doctor’s orders,’ I thought. It was my first drink in almost ten years, and I’m still enjoying red wine several times a week twenty years later. However, in the last year, occasional headaches follow my glass of relaxation.

A few days ago I attended a party. Food was everywhere: chocolate chip cookies, cheese balls covered in chopped nuts, tangy meatballs, corn chips, salami slices, and more. A variety of alcoholic beverages were offered as well. I sought out some red wine, staying true to the lactation consultant’s advice from twenty years ago. After searching three rooms, I found a sole unopened wine bottle off to the side of the hard liquor: rum, vodka, brandy, and gin.

It was too sweet for my palette, but at least it was red wine.

Several hours later, after I had returned home, my head began to throb as if water was sloshing around in my skull. Usually a red wine headache (RWH) dismisses itself within a couple of hours, but this time the pressure lasted well into the following day. Could it have been from cheap wine? Was it high in sulfites? My husband thought tannins might be the culprit.

After some research, I discovered sulfites impact less than 1% of the population. If you were sensitive to sulfites, you would experience more than a headache such as a rash or congestion.

As for tannins, responsible for wine’s astringent taste, they were unlikely to be the source of a headache unless you were to get headaches after drinking black tea as well – another beverage containing tannins.

Some folks blame histamines and tyramine (an amino acid formed during fermentation). However these are found in other foods such as smoked meat and aged cheese and thus an improbable origin.

Congeners, a toxic by-product of the fermentation process, might be the reason for nasty headaches after drinking red wine. Another possibility is where the wine was fermented: oak barrels or stainless steel tanks. While oak sounds romantic, retains color, and enhances flavor, it also releases compounds that the drinker might be sensitive to. However, stainless steel is not in the clear, because a vintner may use oak powder bags in the tanks.

As for cheap wine, taste tests repeatedly show no difference between cheap versus expensive wine, and resulting headaches vary based on the person not the cost.

In summary, an oenophile, inconvenienced by RWH must run a personal experiment to determine wines to enjoy and those to be avoided: notice the grape used, the area it was grown (some theories blame the soil for RWH), and the vineyard’s fermentation process.

This might sound like a time-consuming process just to have a glass of libations before dinner. Any daunting task goes easier with a glass of wine. Might I suggest a Qupé Syrah?



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