Working in a wine shop, I have been asked countless times about wines and sulfites. The some of the common things I hear are, “Sulfites give me terrible headaches,” or, “Red wine gives me a headache, I think I’m allergic to the sulfites.” When customers present these statements to me, my first question is usually, “How are you with dried fruit? Does it give you any issues?” or, “Does tuna fish give you a problem too?” or, “Do you ever get headaches from eating deli meat?”
More often than not, most people will say no, illustrating that a sulfite sensitivity is not the issue. While there are people who do have sensitivities and allergies to sulfites, the problems that arise are more asthmatic and respiratory in nature. There is a small percentage of the population that is allergic to sulfites and being exposed can be much more serious than a simple headache.
In the wine-making process, sulfites play a crucial part. They can be used to control the effects of wild yeast strains for fermentation, and also help preserve the wine once it has been bottled. Sulfites are naturally present in wine; and many, many winemakers add sulfites for preservation’s sake.
While there is not definitive research that proves exactly what causes headaches in all people, there are a few things that have been known to cause issues. However, before going any further, allow me to stress that I am not a medical professional, nor is this information in any way medical advice. It is merely an inquiry into what can cause headaches as a result of drinking wine. That being said, here are some of the potential culprits:
1. Amines – They are organic compounds found naturally in wine, more specifically on wine skins. The two main amines found in wine are histamine and tyramine. Histamine is usually more prevalent in red wines than white wines. There are some people who lack the proper enzyme, diamine oxidase, production to break down histamine. When histamine is not broken down, one of the symptoms is headaches. Excess tyramine in the system can cause an increase in blood pressure which can also result in headaches.
2. Alcohol – One of the byproducts of the fermentation process. Alcohol is a known diuretic. Diuretics can cause dehydration and strip the body of electrolytes. This problem can certainly result in headaches.
3. Over consumption – This is usually the most common cause of headaches. The over consumption of wine, coupled with an inadequate intake of food and water is a recipe for ill-results. Drinking too quickly can likely cause headaches as well.
There may be other triggers for wine-related headaches, but these are wildly perceived to be the big three. So what now? What steps can be taken to mitigate the wine-headache dilemma?
1. First and foremost, monitor your consumption of wine and balance with proper food and water intake. For each glass of wine, try to have a glass of water; alternate between wine and water. Also pace yourself, I know some wines are “highly gulpable”, but know that doing so will most likely make you sick.
2. Try not to drink on an empty stomach (this doesn’t me junk food). Having proper nutrition is important. If you are suffering from wine headaches, eating a meal before hand can help. Not only will it mitigate the issues that arise from water, electrolytes and nutrients being stripped from your body; it will also supply your body with the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that can be helpful in decreasing the negative effects of wine consumption.
3. Don’t drink if your exhausted, or at least take it easy. This is pretty straight forward. Exhaustion is a well-know cause of headaches. If your body is run down and tired, consuming wine (or any other form of alcohol), is only going to make things worse.
4. Pay attention to the wine you’re drinking. Red wines generally have higher levels of histamine than white wine. This is also true of Champagne, but to a lesser extent. Wines from Chianti tend to have higher levels of tyramine, as does Riesling; while varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and wines from Bordeaux tend to be on the lower level of tyramine concentration. If amines are the issue, look for wines that may have lower levels.
5. Taking an a non-drowsy anti-histamine can be helpful if you belief histamine is a root cause of your headaches. Allow me to reiterate that I am not a medical professional and you should consult with your doctor before taking any sort of medication (especially if taking with alcohol).
Generally speaking, moderate consumption, paired with proper intake of food and water can go a long way to enjoying wines without the headaches. It is the safest and most natural remedy. If after that you’re stilling experiencing problems, talking to a doctor should be the next step.
While the exact cause of wine related headaches is not yet fully understood, I think we can put the sulfite-headache correlation to rest.