What Causes Red Wine Headaches?
There is a prevailing myth that the sulfites in red wine are the cause of all that ails us. That’s not necessarily true. It’s not that simple. In fact, it’s all quite complex!
Allergy or Intolerance or Sensitivity?
First let me say that, while I’ve been reading on this extensively, I am not a doctor. My advice below should not be seen as a replacement for sound medical advice.
Medically, there is a difference to these terms. But without medical testing, it’s difficult to tease an allergy from a sensitivity. They both can produce similar and unpleasant symptoms including:
runny nose or congestion
a burning, swelling or itching sensation on the lips, mouth, or throat
rash or hives, which may be itchy
nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
shortness of breath
redness, heat and flushing
So for the purpose of the post I’ll use the term “sensitivity” as a catch all for the possible causes. I also want to point out that the people I’m discussing in this article are not over-indulgers. The people who responded to my survey and who are included in other research I’ve looked into start having symptoms after just a single glass of wine or even a couple sips!
While red wine is the main culprit there is a lot going on here.
First let’s talk about sulfites. Poor sulfites get a really bad rap! Sulfites are a fantastic preservative and are naturally occurring (at inconsequential levels) during a wine’s fermentation. They are also added to wines to further protect them from bacteria and other unwanted bio-agents. They are also used in both wines and food to maintain fresh colors especially in lighter colored products like white wine and yellow raisins (Note that they are banned from several food products and labeled on others due to health concerns and sensitivities). But you see, sulfites are pretty handy. Sulfites, which are often labelled as the additive “sodium metabisulte” or even mislabeled as its gas counterpart “sulfur dioxide”, are used where permitted in dried fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, with yellow raisins and dried apricots clocking in at 500-2000 parts per million. However because some people are known to have a sensitivity to sulfites any products containing levels exceeding 10 parts per million must be labeled. Because red wine is higher in tannins and acidity than most whites, due to longer skin contact time, it has more natural preservatives and requires less sulfites be added for preserving it.
Typical red wine 50 - 75 ppm
Typical white wine 100 ppm
Organic wines are permitted 10 ppm, whereas non-organic wines must be capped at 350 ppm
Dried fruits like apricots and pineapple 500 - 2000 ppm
Note, I’m referencing total sulfites above, however there is a distinction between free and bound sulfites I’m not touching on here.
Conclusion: if you have adverse reactions to red wine but not white wine or sulfite-containing-dried fruits, you can probably rule out sulfites as the culprit! However, if the reverse is true - that you have a reaction after white wine and sulfite-containing-dried fruits and other preserved foods then you might be able to blame the sulfites!
Mass Produced Wines
I’m going to venture that shitty wine can also be the cause of many an adverse reaction. Consider all the things you don’t know about your grocery store wine.
Ingredients List: Alcohol is not required to list ingredients in the US because it’s not regulated by the FDA. Furthermore there are 72 chemical additives allowed in wines that producers don’t have to tell you about. Massed produced, inexpensive wines are starting with inferior grapes (those impacted by smoke taint/mold/picked at the wrong time/etc and sold on the cheap in a secondary market) and have to add some chemicals/additives/fructose/etc to make them look, smell and taste more appealing… garbage in, garbage out and there is a domino effect. The consumer need not be informed about these cost-cutting measures. You have no idea what is in your cheap bottle of wine.
Sugars & Preservatives: Did that mass produced wine use additives and sugars to enhance the flavors or maybe MegaPurple (don’t even get me started…) for that gorgeous color? What else is going on in there? I recently did a 6-month wine preservation study using 2-Buck Chuck from Trader Joes. The stuff never went bad (or rather… never went worse then when first opened) I’m left wondering how much of that is actually wine in those bottles.
The Word “Natural” Isn’t Regulated: OK I’m going to get started on MegaPurple. MegaPurple is the deep dark secret of the wine industry. Some speculate that all grocery store red wine under $20 is using MegaPurple to enhance the color and consumer appeal. But what’s in it? The original makers of MegaPurple (Constellation Wines, the 2nd largest conglomerate of wineries in the US behind EJ Gallo, who recently sold MegaPurple and their entire “MegaNatural” line - OMG) claim the contents of MegaPurple are all natural. But the word “natural” is not a regulated word and because it goes in wine, they are not required to list the ingredients. I’ll let you do that math. MegaNATURAL? 🥺
Allergy to Fining Agents: Fining agents are used in many mass produced wines to remove solids suspended in the wine and make it more clear. These are often proteins that are derived from eggs, milk & fish. While filtering the wine after fining removes all detectable traces of the proteins, some people that are allergic to these proteins may have a reaction all the same. If your are someone with a protein sensitivity this could be your culprit! Many smaller producers don’t filter or fine their wines so again, avoid the grocery store wines! Shop small and local - where you can talk to the winemaker!
Molds & Yeasts: Molds and yeasts introduced to the fermenting wine by insects and other contaminants can cause adverse reactions, if not killed by the added sulfites prior to bottling. Again, I advocate buying from a reputable small production producer who is watching every barrel and doesn’t have a chemical magic wand to wave over all that ails a batch.
Conclusion: If you normally pickup $5-10 wine in your grocery store consider upgrading to a small producer that grows organic grapes and follows industry best practices and careful winemaking procedures. I’m happy to offer some suggestions if you pop a comment below!
No, Really, It’s the RED Wine
If you’re still reading this and angry at me for not addressing what is a real red wine sensitively, other than to tell you it’s not the sulfites, then this is the section for you.
More people report a sensitivity to red wine than white. While a sulfite sensitivity will manifest more after drinking white wine (or champagne or sweet wines), what could be at the heart of a red wine sensitivity?
Some attribute adverse reactions to red wine to biogenic amines, the class of nitrogen containing compounds with histamine as its most familiar member. Histamines are what mediate your body’s response to allergens (headaches, rashes, runny nose, nausea, etc) when antigen levels are sufficiently high. They are found in our foods (and wines) and also produced by our immune systems. There are several phenols and compounds in wine (more prevalent in red wine) that can exacerbate or create the reactions, including: Ethanol (alcohol) , acetaldehyde and acetic acid, flavonoids, histamine and other biogenic amines.
Red wine in general has higher histamine levels than white, as most reds undergo malolactic conversion - which produces histamines as a bi-product. Only some whites go through this additional winemaking process, most notably chardonnay wine to convert the sharp acids to something more creamy.
Consider you might be eating some ripened cheese and dried sausages with your red wine, you’re not doing yourself any favors! See approximate histamine amounts in common foods and drinks below.
White wines – up to 120 ppm
Sauerkraut - up to 229 ppm
Beers – up to 305 ppm
Dry aged sausages - 357 ppm
Champagnes – up to 670 ppm
Ripened cheeses - can be as high as 2500 ppm (esp mold cheeses that have been stored above 40 F)
Red wines – from 60 to 3800 ppm
Wine has other amines that work with the histamines to increase their relative effect on your body so the numbers alone for wine may not paint the whole picture. Furthermore these foods, typically partnered with wine, can trigger a histamine release: fruits like strawberries, some nuts, chocolate. Best to avoid these also if you have a wine sensitivity that you don’t yet know the cause.
So what can you do? While there is no scientifically proven way to remove histamines from wine, you can try the following to alleviate your symptoms (check with your doctor first!): taking antihistamines (but I think this is scary when mixed with alcohol!), DAO enzyme supplements, avoid anti-inflammatory meds.
Tannins are also higher in red wines. Red wine is made by allowing the grape juice to ferment in the same vessel as the skins. It’s this time in contact with the red grape skins that gives red wine its color. During this time tannins are extracted from the skins and imparted onto the wine.
Some people have allergies to a specific grape/wine type such as Zinfandel!
Conclusion: There is so much in red wine that could be causing your suffering. What’s listed here is just the tip of the iceberg.
Other Possible Causes
There are so many factors that can be causing your reactions. Scientists have not solved this problem yet. The usual suspects are Histamines, Tannins, Sulifites, Yeast, Fructose used in mass-produced wines, and then there are the myriad of other chemical additives used in poorly made wines.
Also consider that your discomfort after drinking could be due to these usual suspects:
Staying up too late
Over-indulging in general
Again, this is not a replacement for sound medical advice!
Here’s the section you’ve been waiting for! Based on my research* I would like to make a few suggestions for sufferers.
>> Products (like Ullo, Wine Wand) Aimed at Removing Sulfites
Products like the Ullo and Wine Wand claim to be remove sulfites from the wine. I know 2 sufferers who’ve tried Ullo with great success and delight! Interestingly enough both sufferers I spoke with have a red wine only issue that was resolved by the Ullo. Ullo founder and inventor James Kornacki will only claim that the product removes sulfites (not tannins or histamines or any of the other items listed above) so it’s not clear to us how the product works for people without a sulfite sensitivity (remember, sulfites are higher in white wines, not reds, so what’s going on here?). Science cannot yet answer that question but I’m happy to know people are finding some relief. If you’re wondering what the effect is on the taste of the wine, I tried both and can tell you… The net of it is that Ullo did have a slight (ever so slightly) effect the flavor of my red and white wine. Wine Wand produced a metallic and unpleasant flavor. That’s because Üllo is selective for sulfites, the only legal artificial additive (or so they say!). It’s designed not to remove anything else and adds nothing back in. It acts like a Sulfite magnet and doesn’t filter per se. The Wine Wand removes all ions, which include just about everything except the ethanol while adding in metallic counter-ions that were originally present on the resin inside.
Conclusion: If you’re going to try one of these products, I can recommend the Ullo. While it’s pricey, the company stands by a “liberal return policy” if it doesn’t work for you. This is a quote straight from James Kornacki, PhD, founder and inventor of Üllo. So you have little to loose! Tell him I sent you! 🤩 Also… I”ll be posting an Ullo giveaway on my Instagram Channel shortly! Follow me to be notified!
>> Diamane Oxidase Supplements (DAO)
DAO supplements are aimed at breaking down histamines in your body. These may help if you’re producing too much or reacting to the histamines in your wine.
>> Hydrogen Peroxide Drops
Not recommended, but a couple drops in your glass could remove your sulfites. This works in theory but … H2O2 + SO2 = H2SO4 … Sulfuric Acid 🤣 Again, not recommended but gets rid of your sulfites. I had to throw that in!
>> Avoid These Foods and Products
Based on the fact that other foods may contain either histamines and/or sulfites, you’d be advised to avoid those foods until you know their effect… dried meats, ripened cheeses, dried fruits, fermented foods and beverages like sauerkraut and kombucha,
>> Consider These Other Actions
Drink plenty of water, maybe even some Pedialyte, consider proactively taking aspirin or Imitrex for headaches, Benedryl (small amounts) to calm allergic reactions, avoid drinking tannic wines when stressed (this can trigger vasorelaxation and trigger headaches), decant your wine allow volatile acids and other phenols to dissipate,
I hope if you’ve read this far you’ve either developed a new appreciation for those who have a wine sensitivity or found some constructive actions you can take to feel better yourself! While there are just too many factors for most sufferers to know exactly what is causing their symptoms there are definitely some actions you can take to avoid feeling worse. Good luck and happy SIP’ing!Research included online reading, conversations with sufferers, conversations with Ullo founder & inventor, and results of a 33-person survey