I have been getting lots of questions about wine headaches, so I thought it might be time to talk about histamines in wine.
But before we get there, we must talk about the elephant in the room. This post is about headaches and other reactions you get while drinking wine and not headaches resulting from being hungover.
Histamines not Sulfites
From a previous post, we know that for 99% of us, wine headaches do not come from sulfites; we have already gone through that. In the sulfites post, we also discussed hydration when drinking alcohol. So here it is worth saying again, drink water to stay hydrated when consuming any alcohol. If you don’t, you will probably get a dehydration headache as well as a stronger, more noticeable histamine reaction if you are not careful.
What are Histamines?
Histamines are organic compounds involved in local immune responses in many plants and animals, including humans. They exist all around us and in us. They make us sneeze, itch, flush, give us a headache, cause nasal congestion, and other more severe symptoms. The histamines in our body’s cells are there to protect us from foreign invaders, like mosquito saliva for us all, pollen, aka seasonal allergies for many of us, and certain foods (like peanuts) for some.
Additionally, some histamines exist in many things we eat and drink – like wine. So to be clear, for the average person, I am not saying that you have a wine allergy. All I am saying is that the histamines in some wine can cause you to have a physical reaction – like a headache.
Not surprisingly, all alcoholic beverages have histamines, but some are lower than others. For example, white wines not fermented or aged in oak or other wood barrels are low, as is non-flavored clear distilled vodka, gin, and tequila. On the other hand, oaked white wines (predominately Chardonnay), most red wines, beer, all brown liquors, and ciders have significant histamines.
There are only two ways to deal with histamines in wine: to avoid them or counteract them. But before we go there, you first have to determine if they are causing the problem.
15 Minutes After Your First Sips
Of Any Of These Wines
To determine if wine causes a histamine reaction take a couple of sips of any of the listed wines below. Then wait approximately fifteen minutes to see if you feel any symptoms. Is a headache coming on? Do you feel like sneezing? Are you getting congested?
But before you do the test with your favorite histamine-producing wine, you need to remember that all wine is not created equally. Histamines may come from the skins, seeds, or stems from the grapes used or from the barrels the wine is fermented and aged in. Histamines and tannins go hand in hand. So the more tannic the wine, the greater the possibility of histamines. I suggest that you look for wines that are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks, concrete tanks, or amphora. If the wine is made in a wood barrel, look for wines that use predominately neutral barrels versus new barrels.
Look for well-made wines. This means that you may need to increase your wine budget. It is not uncommon for additives to be used to make low-quality wine to make the wine more palatable. The average wine purchased at a grocery store is mass-produced, which usually means additives. The more additives used, the higher the likelihood of a histamine reaction.
These varieties typically have higher histamine levels. So pick one of these to do your test.
Mourvèdre aka Monastrell aka Mataro
Oaked white wine – (Hello California Chardonnay Lovers)
It might also be a good idea to track which wines cause a reaction. Keep a log. Record the date, the brand, the variety, the price. Look for patterns.
I occasionally get congested from drinking certain wines. I do not think it is varietally based. So I am gonna start keeping track and see what I find out.
So You Had a Histamine Reaction, Now What?
I guess the first suggestion is to stop drinking wine. Ok, I said it. Next…
My second suggestion is to switch to wines with lower histamine levels (see below).
Wines with Lower Histamines
Red Wines with Low Histamines
White Wine that is not fermented or aged in wood barrels.
This includes most white wines.
My third suggestion is to improve the quality of wine you buy. Avoid mass-market, industrially-produced wine. That may mean you need to increase your wine budget for red wine. This suggestion also requires you to buy your wine at a reputable wine shop.
Lastly, you could take a non-drowsy antihistamine before you start drinking wines that you know will produce a reaction. Fexofenadine, aka Allegra or its generics, falls into this category. That said, be sure to ask your doctor and check for allergies to this product. Of course, I am not a doctor, so do your own due diligence.
Do NOT take a decongestant or an antihistamine that includes a decongestant. Decongestants dehydrate, as does alcohol. So you will certainly get dehydrated and more than likely get a killer headache.
So It’s Not Histamines?
I hate to break the news to you, but you could be allergic to alcohol. One of my sisters is. Fortunately for her, she is not nor has she ever been much of a drinker. It was an occasional Margarita that alerted her to the problem.
Don’t over-consume. Drink more water. Eat when you drink. Also, if you have seasonal allergies, alcohol may enhance your allergy symptoms.
Rick & Gary