October 18, 2022 4 min read
Wine Headache & Histamine: A crash course
People are constantly trying to minimize the negative effects of drinking booze. I certainly fall into this camp, and in true cliché fashion, my efforts to not be hungover have only increased with age. My quest for the holy grail of drinking, where consumption flows freely without the negative impacts, led me to explore histamines in wine. What exactly are they, how do they get into wine, what effect can they have on a person, and finally, what can an affected person do?
There are many urban legends (or is it country club legends when it comes to wine?) swirling around about why wine gives you headaches and/or a potentially nasty hangover. The standard tasting room attributes these ailments to the sulfites, tannins, and residual sugar found in wine. It wasn’t until recently the culprit discussed was wine histamines. (Let us not forget that drinking a bottle of wine to the face will most likely result in some degree of headache.)
Histamines are actually quite prevalent in the biological world. They can be found in a variety of plants, animals, and even insect venom. At the basic level, histamines are classified as an amine by those that wear lab coats. (I believe this has something to do with the molecule being related to the structure of ammonia (NH3), but you can check out Britannica.com if you want more specific information.) The human body produces histamines in mast cells, which you can think of as part of your immune system. An article by Webmb sums it up nicely, “Histamines act like bouncers at a club. They help your body get rid of something that's bothering you -- in this case, an allergy trigger, or "allergen."”
While your body can produce histamine, it can also be consumed via many foods and beverages such as aged cheese, fish, cured meats, avocados, eggs, wine, vinegar, etc. So, how does the histamine get into the wine you are drinking? Well, remember when I said histamine is in many plants? One of those plants is a grapevine and the skins of grapes contain histamine. Since red wines are fermented on the skins of the grape, red wines tend to have higher levels of histamine compared to white wines. White wines are generally made by pressing the juice away from the skins, thus minimizing the histamine present in the finished wine. A secondary malolactic fermentation, used to soften the acidity of various wines, can also produce detectable levels of histamine in a finished wine (depending on the stain of lactic acid bacteria used).
The good news is that for most people, the level of histamine in wine is not going to trigger wine headaches. Again, it is important to note that when wine is consumed in excess, the dreaded headache monster is never far away. Huan Hooke’s 2019 article on Histamine and Wine points out, “the mean histamine concentration in Australian wines surveyed by the AWRI between 2003 and 2009 was 1.75 mg/l for red wines and 0.59 mg/l for whites”. From a medical standpoint, this level of histamine should not be an issue for most wine drinkers. Now, for the unlucky 1% or so population of folks that do have histamine sensitivity, you can do some research on the best ways to combat this health issue. One common reason you may have a histamine sensitivity is because your body is insufficiently producing an enzyme called Diamine Oxidase (DAO), which aids in the breakdown of histamines you ingest from foods and beverages. The good news is there are supplements you can take that help boost DAO levels to combat histamine intolerance.
Noticing symptoms such as headaches, sinus issues, fatigue, hives, digestive issues and nausea after eating or drinking could mean you are in the unlucky 1%. Fortunately, if you suspect you are suffering from an intolerance, you can speak with your doctor and find out by testing DAO levels in your blood.
The big takeaway after doing some research is that most of us wine drinkers are not going to be adversely affected by the level of histamines found in the majority of wines on the market. This is awesome news! It is important to note that wine is a very dynamic libation and there are other components that may trigger a negative response in some way. As you know, headache triggers can be unique to individuals. If you are feeling ill after drinking a moderate amount of wine, I suggest taking notes of symptoms, the type of wine you are drinking, how much you drank, etc. This may help determine the root cause of your pain. If your notes indicate you consumed seven glasses of wine then well…that’s likely a personal problem. Just kidding. Every now and then you must pay the price for a good time!
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