January has long since been my least favorite month of the year. In fact, I begin to fear its arrival just as I am clearing my Christmas dinner plate into the garbage. My stomach notes that familiar drop, that uneasy turn… then memories begin to flood.
I have come to associate January with loss, having seen the closest people in my life slip from me this cold, dark month. And no matter how much I set my mind to embrace this wintry month each year–booking plans, dinners and parties sure to get me through–the other shoe always manages to drop.
Today I said goodbye to my cat. I know. It’s just a cat. He didn’t even die. But I learned recently that I have developed some intense allergy-induced asthma. Sure enough, she was a constant component.
How, you might wonder, does this tie into wine? Well, I shall tell you. In just a week, I have learned more than I ever thought I would about this annoying disease. For one, allergens are the enemy.
I wasn’t quick to turn myself in to the doctor’s office. For about ten months, I have been enduring many sleepless nights up coughing, sniffling and sometimes drugging myself to sleep with Benadryl. I reviewed the control factor in my life, realizing the only daily control factors were my cat… and my wine. Neither of which I wanted them to confirm.
And then there’s that one night… the night every asthmatic can relate to, when you are sitting straight up, coughing without stop, literally gasping for oxygen and wheezing with every inhalation. The thought dawns on you that you are actually scared to fall asleep, for what if you don’t get up? You swear you will see the doctor if some force beyond this world will let you wake up. You make a deal. You fall asleep. You wake up and keep that promise, and call the doctor.
I got my answer pretty quickly: ragweed and cat. I asked about wine, and they reassured me that I wasn’t allergic. However, the next part intrigued me. Though I wasn’t allergic to wine, sulfites are a well-known allergen and asthma irritant. Like scented candles, chemical cleanign products and dust, I am not ‘allergic’ so to speak, but I am sensitive to a plethora of allergens now.
I began to panic. How does one carry on a career with wine? Will it get worse? What does it mean to be reactive to sulfites? Suddenly, it occurred to me how many customers constantly came in and told me they were ‘allergic’ to sulfites. I didn’t believe so many people could possibly share that intolerance. When people asked me if I had sulfite-free wine, I simply said few if any exist… and of the rare wines that see no sulfites added, they’re not all that exciting.
So call it karmic retribution, I am now forced to research it more. And what I am learning is fascinating.
Perhaps a definition is needed first. Sulfites are compounds that are naturally produced from yeast during fermentation, but they can also be added to arrest fermentation and more importantly preserve the wine (it is, after all, a living fruit that will spoil) and its aromatics. Most winemakers also add sulfites to prevent oxidization and insure some degree of ageability without the threat of turning the wine into vinegar or promoting bacterial growth. Aside from ‘organic’ wine, which does not see added sulfites, most wine gets a dose.
What people don’t realize is that the levels are relatively low at roughly 10 mg per glass. Compare this to 2 oz of many dried fruits at a concentrated 112 mg per serving. White wines actually contain slightly more than red, another interesting fact I learned. Also, while sulfites are linked with headaches, this is still not proven so. In fact, it is almost certain to be a urban wine legend. However, what is true is that some people are sensitive, even allergic to, sulfites. Actually, I discovered that women are significantly more reactive to sulfites (definitely true with my customers, as no man has EVER had this issue).
It has also been noted that steroid dependency (inhalers, oral tablets, shots), also increases one’s sensitivity to sulfites. In fact, most people who struggle with sulfites also use a steroid of some sort regularly. Another reason I really want to try and kick this naturally.
When sulfites are ingested, sulfur dioxide is formed in the airways, triggering bronchospasm. Sulfites are found in so many foods: condiments, jams, dried fruits & vegetables, hard cider, soup mixes, and of course wine. Sensitivity does not always mean stop altogether. From what I have learned it means to choose your battles. Minimize overall intake and if you have to have that glass, just cut back on that days’ other sources of sulfites. Some people do, however, have dangerous reactions, even fatal, and must know their limits. See a doctor if you fear you are one of the 5-10% that has a severe allergy.
This has been a lot to take in, however, I am learning that there are so many things, even outside of sulfite ingestion that I can do to treat asthma drug-free. First things first, remove known allergens. Sadly, that was my buddy– a big, chubby Siamese cat. Got a sneak peak at her new home today, and I think she’ll have a good life with her new siblings– another cat and dog. I also turned my apartment upside down and cleaned like mad today, which is critical for keeping allergens low. I am buying an air purifier tomorrow, taking a ton of Vitamin C and trying to cut down to ice cream only once or twice a week (from about five days), in order to keep to mucous down. This goes for all dairy… even cheese (sniffle). I have also turned to dark side and bought, yes… a neti pot. I have yet to really figure it out. I swear I keep getting salt water stuck in my head. But the theory is that it will keep my sinuses clear, prevent post nasal, minimize coughing, but most importantly, allow me to analyse wine better with a healthy, clear nose.
Am I nervous this could develop into a more serious problem? You bet. But I’m not only an optimist, I have never been one to beat those kind of odds. Luckily, I am pretty average. I mean, heck, 20 million people are reported to suffer from asthma. And that’s just who is reported. So of course I have it. Only 5-10% of those, however, are really allergic to sulfites. The day I make those odds is the day I guess I’ll need to seek out my other hidden talents.
Until then, Salud! And thank God for February…
And the many people I know who deal with it daily and have found many natural ways to cope just fine.