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Why Red Wine Makes Me… Well Lots of Things

Why Red Wine Gives me a Headache

Alcohol and its primary breakdown product acetaldehyde, toxic when highly concentrated, get through the blood brain barrier, diffuse into fluids in your brain and spinal cord and directly irritate the meninges. Meninges are the layers of membrane that cover the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). When the meninges are irritated, pain receptors send a signal, causing you pain at the surface of the front or back of your head. The higher the BAC (blood alcohol concentration), the less able the liver is to break down the alcohol, the longer it remains in your blood and the more likely you are to get a headache.

Sulfites are naturally occurring in all wines, but are also added to it to stop fermentation, and often as a preservative agent. This prevents the wine from to much oxidation causing spoilage. Without adding sulfur, the grape juice would turn to vinegar. Many peoples say that sulfites are the cause of the Red Wine Headache. Only 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites, meaning they lack the digestive enzyme that handles the processing of sulfites in foods. Due to the higher sugar levels however, white wines actually tend to contain higher amounts of sulfites, which renders this explanation rather moot. On top of this, dried fruit contains very high levels of sulfites, and you don’t hear many people complaining that a dried apricot gave them a headache.

Other people and experts believe that histamines are the cause of the dreadful Red Wine Headache. Red wine contains anywhere from 20-200% more histamines than do white wines. Those who are especially sensitive to histamines are deficient of a specific enzyme that breaks them down. Some experts are under the impression that it is a mix of alcohol with this deficiency that causes the headache. An easy way to test to see if an enzyme deficiency is the cause for your Red Wine Headache is to take an anti-histamine one hour prior to your first drink. If you don’t get a headache, you know its an enzyme deficiency, and to prevent the headaches, always take an anti-histamine or drink a cup of black tea (which contains Quercetin a bioflavonoid which prevents the headaches and flush reaction cause by the histamines) before you drink any red wine.

Some postulate that tannins cause the Red Wine Headache. Tannins are a substance that arises from the grape skins, seeds and stems. Since wine gets its color from the grape skins, red wine contains more tannins then does white wine. Unlike white wines, red wines are fermented while exposed to their skins and seeds. Wines can also take on tannins from the oak of the barrels they are stored and aged in. While it doesnít explain why everyone doesnít have a negative reaction, it has been hypothesized that tannins cause the excess release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can increase the likelihood of getting a headache. Some red wines contain fewer tannins, including Italian red wine and French red wine from Burgundy like Barbera and Dolcetto. Wines made from Sangiovese grapes, Spanish Riojas and Pinot Noir tend to also be much less tannic, and are a good choice if you suffer from Red Wine Headaches.

Remember that a Red Wine Headache happens within 15 minutes of drinking your first glass of wine. If you wake up in the morning with a headache after making it through several bottles the night before, you canít blame it on an enzyme deficiency or an allergy, thatís just a hangover!

Why Red Wine Makes Me Sleepy
So youíve had a few glasses of red wine, and while youíve successfully managed to bypass the headache, you are ready to go to bed even though the party is not nearly over. Melatonin is a hormone naturally created by the pineal gland. It regulates and maintains the bodies circadian rhythm, which can most easily be described as an internal 24 hour clock that plays a role in our sleep and wake patterns. Naturally, when itís dark out, your body produces more melatonin, and when its light, it produces less. Melatonin can be found in high levels in the skin of grapes, and since red wines are fermented while in contact to their skins, they contain more melatonin then white wines. A combination of the melatonin found in the grapes with the boosted effects of antioxidants and alcohol, as well as drinking at nighttime, when you are already producing higher levels of melatonin- it is not surprising why you might find yourself quite tired -mid party. If you find that you are overly effected by this but want to continue drinking red wine, opt for a Barbera or Merlot, and forgo a Cabernet or Nebbiolo.

Why Alcohol Make My Face Red
Alcohol is broken down in the liver in two steps, and through two pathways. First the liver breaks the alcohol into acetaldehyde, and then breaks that up into acetate before it is removed from the body by the kidneys. This first pathway is turned on whenever any alcohol is consumed. The second pathway, which mimics the steps of the first, is only turned on only after a certain blood alcohol concentration has been reached, which, for the average person is around four drinks. Within the Asian population, many people have an inactive gene, which creates the enzyme that breaks down the acetaldehyde into acetate, within the first pathway in the liver. This means that until they are several drinks in and their BAC has reached a high enough level for the second pathway system to turn on, their liver isnít properly breaking up the acetaldehyde into acetate. The physical effects of having the inactive gene and a prolonged blood concentration of acetaldehyde include:

  • facial flushing
  • rapid heart beat
  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • drowsiness
  • low blood pressure

This process then explains why many Asian people get flushed faces when they first start drinking, but a few drinks later, the redness goes away.

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