Chemicals in general

Wine contains biogene amines such as thyramine, histamine and putresin – all of which can trigger headaches.

On the other hand, hangover headaches are due to impurities called congeners that are formed as the alcohol is metabolized by the body. Darker colour beverages such as red wine, whiskey, and bourbon have higher levels of congeners than clear drinks such as gin or vodka, and are therefore more likely to cause a hangover headache.

Thyramine releases adrenalin and elevates heart rates and blood pressure – which leads to headaches.

The main culprits in triggering migraine and headache when drinking wine, are histamine and tannins. Tannins are well known, while the relations between histamines are headache caused by wine, is not so well known to most people. Some people have a shortage of an enzyme that breaks down histamine in the small intestine. Alcohol also inhibits the enzyme, so the combination may boost histamine levels in the blood, which can dilate blood vessels and cause a headache.


Tannins – Tannins are found in wine; they originate from both the grape skins and seeds, and the hydrolysable tannins extracted from the oak wood the wine is aged in. Tannins are more noticeable in red wines because the juice is fermented in contact with the skins and seeds.

Tannins play an important role in preventing oxidization in aging wine, and appear to polymerize and make up a major portion of the sediment in wine.

Tannins are also found in other food and drink products such as tea, soy and chocolate.

It has been theorized tannins may be responsible for the “Red Wine Headache” as ingesting tannins release serotonin, potentially resulting in headaches.

It has been theorized ethanol may play a role in histamine-related reactions to wine as it accelerates absorption of histamine and may delay the metabolism of histamine in liver which exacerbates the effects of the histamine in the system.


The main biogenic amines in wine are histamine, tyramine, putrescine, cadaverine and phenylethylamine.

Biogenic amines are basic nitrogenous low molecular weight compounds with biological activity that may be formed or catabolised during the normal metabolism of animals, plants and micro-organisms. Biogenic amines are derived mainly from amino acids through substrate-specific decarboxylase enzymes

Amines may be formed by yeasts during the alcoholic fermentation (mostly putrazine); by lactic acid bacteria (LAB) during malolactic fermentation (MLF) and during maturation of wines. Biogenic amines can also be present in the must, just as putrescine in grapes is associated with potassium deficiencies in the soil.

Biogenic amines are important because they contain a health risk for sensitive individuals. Symptoms include nausea, respiratorial discomfort, hot flushes, cold sweat, palpitations, headaches, red rash, high or low blood pressure. Alcohol and acetaldehyde have been found to increase the sensitivity to biogenic amines.

High levels of biogenic amines correlate fairly well with other wine spoilage components for example butyric acid, lactic acid, acetic acid, ethylacetate and diethyl succinate. Which is why wines with higher levels usually also have higher levels of volatile acid. Red wines also have higher levels than white wines, mainly because of vinification practices and maturation.


Sulphites used to take the blame for Red Wine Headache (RWH). About 20 years ago the Food and Drug Administration determined that about 1 percent of the population is allergic to sulphites and required that wines containing certain levels of the compound be labelled “contains sulphites.”

Many people have assumed, incorrectly, that the labelling is designed to warn people who get a red wine headache.

(In fact, sulphite sensitivity is a true allergy. Sufferers experience an allergic reaction, but not a headache. RWH is something else.)


Histamines are a physiologically active amine, C5H9N3, found in plant and animal tissue and released as part of an allergic reaction in people. It stimulates gastric secretion and causes dilation of capillaries, constriction of bronchial smooth muscle, and decreased blood pressure. In short it makes us feel poorly.

The histamines in red wines come from two sources:

  1. The grape skins. The tannins in the skin inhibit the enzymes that remove catecole amine, and headache is triggered.
  2. Oak barrels and oak products

Bioactive amines are low molecular weight organic bases, formed by biological processes in all living organisms. One such bioactive amine is histamine. Wine, particularly red wine, is a beverage that contains significant amounts of histamine.

Although there are many agents in red wine known to cause headaches (e.g. ethanol), histamine has been identified as the primary cause for intense headaches and migraines that some people experience after consuming red wine.

Histamine is considered to be an allergen and a causative agent for headaches. While on average histamine in wine is 5.7 ppm and 3.4 ppm for red and white wine respectively, an extremely low histamine content is a desirable characteristic.

Some countries have been working on establishing limits for histamine in wines. Switzerland recommends 10 mg/L as a maximal level, Germany recommends 2 mg/L, while Belgium and France recommend 5 mg/L and 8 mg/ml respectively. However, these regulations were not accepted.

Red wine with less than 0,5mg/l, is concidered “Histamine-free”.

The percentage of amines varies very much from one wine to another. The higher levels are often caused by lack of hygienic control. Some manufacturers are not using cultured yeast, but leave the process to be driven by the yeast that naturally are found in the grape most. The growth of undesired bacteria produces biogenic amines.

The use of Stainless Steel tanks reduces the growth of amines.

You will develop a high level of tannins in wine, if you press the grapes too hard, or if you leave the most of the grapes too long exposed to the skin and the stones of the grapes.

When the wine ages, the polyphenols binds together. Also, they binds to the colour pigments, so that the dry perception of the tannins disappear. Accordingly, older wines are perceived to have a lower content of tannins. The true content has to be measured, not evaluated by tasting.

Accordingly, the advice of drinking older, matured, wines is not to be followed if you are avoiding tannins.

Very often, you will experience that the more expensive the wine, the more tannins. Wines stored in oak barrels are rich on tannins. Generally; light, fruity and light wines are low on tannins.

The Chairman of the European Histamine Research Society, Felix Lopez Elorza, states: “Wine with less Histamine is definitely healthier, especially for people who have difficulty eliminating histamine, which is possibly from about 4 – 7% of the population.”

Chemistry professor Francisco Bravo says to Madrid’s Centre for Scientific Studies: “Low-histamine wine has great value from a medical point of view, especially for those who must reduce the amount of histamine in their diet. It is a toxic substance, especially in combination with alcohol in wine.”

Other chemicals

Alcohol/ethanol Dilates the blood vessels.  Leaks Nitrogen Oxide.  Inhibits the products of the anti diuretic hormone, dehydrates.
Sulphite Causes headache to those with sulphite intolerance. Not directly related to red wine headache. Critical for patiens with Asthma
Capsiacin Innervates the Trigeminus nerve. Burning feeling
Thyramin Contracts the blood vessels. Biogenic amine
Flavanoides Inhibits enzymes that eliminates Catecole amines.  20x more in red than in white wines
Polyphenols Tannins. Extract from skin, stones and stems during the fermentation. When the wine ages, the polyphenols binds together, and to the colour pigments, so that the dry perception of the tannins disappear.
Enzymes Removes the catecole amines. The tannins inhibits these enzymes
Acetaldehyd Inhibits the production of histamines
Substans P Secretion/leaks from the blood vessels. Spreading cortical depression. Suppressing the brain activity
CGRP Secretion/leaks from the blood vessels.  Spreading cortical depression. Suppressing the brain activity
Neurokinin A Secretion/leaks from the blood vessels.  Spreading cortical depression. Suppressing the brain activity
Resveratrol Produced under the skin of the grapes during fermentation. Linked to a positive health effect of the wine, more with red than white wine.
© 2007