We have customers that come in and ask us for wine that will not give them a headache. For whatever reason, they experience headache after drinking red wine. Most people think that sulfites in wine cause these headaches and indeed there are articles floating around on the internet claiming this. We wanted to give our readers and customers some credible information about what may cause wine headaches and how to avoid them.
Sulfites Aren’t Likely To Cause Headaches
Many people blame sulfites for their wine headaches. This however, is likely not the cause of their pain. Only about 1% of the population has sulfite allergy and it is most common in people with asthma. An allergic reaction to sulfite is not usually associated with headaches but more commonly with respiratory symptoms.
Another reason to doubt that sulfites are the cause is because of their prevalence in our food supply in much higher levels than are in red wine. Sulfites are present in wine naturally, but are also added in very small amounts to preserve the wine and keep it from spoiling. Red wine will typically have 50-75 ppm sulfites but can range up to 300 ppm. Wines with lower alcohol or less acid (which tend to taste sweeter), will often need more sulfite added to keep them from spoiling. Compare that to the levels found in some foods. Many foods including french fries, cheese and dried fruit have MUCH higher levels of sulfite from 300 ppm – 3000 ppm. For this reason it is unlikely that sulfites are the cause of wine headaches if someone does not get headaches from eating these kinds of foods.
Wine Contains Histamines & Histamines Cause Inflammation
The cause of red wine headaches may be due to an allergy, just not a sulfite allergy. Histamines are found in nature on many plants and they are the cause of seasonal allergies. Wine, especially red wine, contains histamines. Red wines are more often associated with headaches. This could be because they have higher levels of histamines than white wines. The reason for the higher levels in red wines is primarily from the prolonged skin contact time that red wines have vs white wines. The longer the skin contact time, the more histamines are imparted into the juice. Like with an allergic reaction to seasonal histamines in the air, histamines in wine can cause inflammation that induces a headache.
Dehydration and Alcohol Can Cause Headaches
When alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream it causes blood vessels to expand, which can lead to headache. Dehydration, even mild dehydration, can also cause headaches. Now put the two together and you have a headache waiting to happen.
How To Avoid Headaches When Drinking Wine
If you find that drinking red wine gives you a headache, there a few things you can try.
- Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate! Drink a full glass of water before you start drinking wine. Continue to take sips of water in between sips of wine. A good rule of thumb is to drink a glass of water for every glass of wine. Remember that alcohol has a diuretic effect and will cause the body to excrete water through the urine and will actively be working against you in your quest for hydration.
- Some over the counter medications may help prevent wine headaches such as antihistamines and anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen. However, any medication can have side effects or interactions with other medications that could be even more undesirable than a wine headache. We recommend talking to a doctor before taking any medications to treat or prevent a wine headache.
- Some people find that red wines from European countries don’t give them headaches. The reason why is unknown but something to try if you want to continue drinking reds and nothing else you’ve tried has worked. If you want to go this route, we can help you find a European wine to try.
- Try white wine instead. It may not scratch the same itch but many people find whites don’t give them the headaches that reds do. If you can learn to love whites and they don’t give you a headache then it’s a win-win!