Are you feeling a bit sore behind the eyes after a good time last night? David Bird MW explains what is probably causing that wine headache, otherwise known as a hangover.

Ask Decanter: What gives me a wine headache?

Michael Marsiglio, from London, asks:  Is it the sulfites in wine or the alcohol – or both – that gives you a headache the day after overindulging?

David Bird MW,  for Decanter, replies: It could be both – or neither! Both of these substances are toxins, so should be approached with caution. Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is dangerous in large doses but the tiny amount in wines is invaluable, giving great protection against oxidation.

There are a few unfortunate people who are extremely sensitive to the allergic effect of SO2, hence the warning that appears on all wine labels.

Alcohol is also dangerous in large quantities but acts in a different way by dehydrating the cells in our bodies. This effect can be overcome by drinking plenty of water.

It is probable that the headache is caused by other low-level components like amino acids, polyphenols and other complex organic molecules that are an essential part of all wines.

David Bird MW is an analytical chemist, wine consultant and author of Understanding Wine Technology.

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  • anna landragin

    I come across of the ” red wine and sulfites in wine give me headache” statement on daily basis. I have a wine store in very prosperous and health conscientious area of Washington DC, but when it comes to wine the funds dry up and the nastiest wines- of which I know but do not carry- are favored for their low price. Over- ripe fruit, synthetic flavor additives and oak together with high alc.% make these wines a health hazard. Considering that wine is, often than not, consumed by the bottle with a cracker and a wedge of cheese and not by the glass with a meal, one exposes oneself to a problem resulting in all kinds of ailments. I do care about my wines and do not shy away from explaining the “mode d’emploi” for each wine that walks out of my store. Bad luck if I get many vitriolic comments and reviews. There is a great Russian proverb that says: “Ne peniay na serkalo koli roja kriva” -Do not blame the mirror if your face is ugly.

  • Clive Holland

    I question the use of the word “radicals” in your post Jose. Shouldn’t this read “ions”? Also people keep calling for more research into this subject, keep saying the agent is neither this nor that, keep saying that there is not sufficient knowledge etc but for some reason choose to ignore the research that has already been done into the role of histamines. Am I missing something?

  • Patrick Dunn

    Chateau Musar 2005 was one of the best wines I’ve ever had! I’ve never experienced such complexity in a wine before or since.

  • Jose Vouillamoz

    This recent scientific study from the (well-named) journal Headache published by the American Headache Society might help answering some questions: Sulfites can most likely be ruled out, and their conclusion is: “Wine, and specifically red wine, is a migraine trigger. Non-migraineurs may have headache attacks with wine ingestion as well. The reasons for that triggering potential are uncertain, but the presence of phenolic flavonoid radicals and the potential for interfering with the central serotonin metabolism are probably the underlying mechanisms of the relationship between wine and headache. Further controlled studies are necessary to enlighten this traditional belief.” Interestingly, this other (and older) study in The Lancet concludes “red wine contains a migraine-provoking agent that is neither alcohol nor tyramine”. As a consequence, current medical knowledge is still not sufficient to fully explain the mechanism of headache/hangover related to wine consumption.

  • Bon Vivant

    Most likely it’s histamines but the first question is whether you get headaches from white wines or red wines or both. Whites contain significantly more sulfites PPM than reds so if your headache is from white then there is a small chance it’s the sulfites. However if you get headaches from reds then it is more likely that it is being caused by histamines which are a byproduct of malolactic fermentation and to a lesser degree from oak barrels. During MLF biogenic amines are produced with histamines being the most prevalent, the effect is somewhat like getting a hay fever headache. I have aided customers with this syndrome by having them try a simple Beaujolais because they get no or very little MLF and no oak. The majority of the times these sufferers come back to me elated because the wine did not cause headaches. In such cases the key is to find unoaked reds that either had no malo or partial.

  • Jean K Reilly MW

    I agree with the position of many of the commentators on this article: we would all welcome a scientific study on the non-dehydration cause(s) of headaches produced by moderate wine consumption. Personally, however, I don’t think we can rule out something in the grapes themselves. Many, many people can drink white wine but get debilitating headaches from red wine. The reported pain level is many times greater than that of a hangover headache. Some of the most sensitive of these people cannot drink white wine made from red grapes – Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, etc. which is an interesting twist to the puzzle. So while I am all for a more natural approach to winemaking, I don’t think we can jump to conclusions about the cause of this sadly common phenomena. Now, if I can just get a few of these very sensitive people to try an orange wine, we’d have some more data to work with!

  • Clive Holland

    “It is probable that the headache is caused by other low-level components like amino acids, polyphenols and other complex organic molecules that are an essential part of all wines.” -just a vague catchall from someone who probably knows better. And we don’t necessarily have to blame additives, but this could be the case for some cheap mass produced wines. In many cases the headache is not caused by an allergy to sulphites, but by an allergy to histamines (related to amino acids), which can be naturally occuring in wine, particularly red. And by the way taking “anti-histamines” isn’t the answer, these are dangerous with alcohol.

  • David Black

    Absolutely agree, time for ingredient labeling on all beverage alcohol. I would add the possibility of nutrient-starved/unhealthy yeast to the possible sources of headache inducing substances along with additives.

  • Bartholomew Broadbent

    Yes, clearly, he is one of the very rare and unfortunate individuals with sulfite allergies. People with sulfite allergies are more than likely to suffer far worse consequences than headaches. Like peanut allergies, to be taken very seriously. In fact, I’m not sure that they even cause headaches at all. It is far worse than that for the victim. The frustrating thing about sulfite warnings, which are important, is that they are prominent on wine bottles and not so prominent on other produce. This leads the average consumer to think that sulfites are unique to wine and should be avoided. They have no idea that sulfites are found in so many foods which they eat every day, so it is really unfair that the wine industry is singled out. It was a compromise from the 1980s when the neo-prohibisionists were strongly attacking wine producers. All products containing sulfites, which is the majority of foods you purchase in a grocery store, should warn of sulfites and, if they don’t have to, wine shouldn’t have to. The person who is allergic to sulfites is going to do research anyway on what they can and cannot eat or drink because it is a matter of life or death. To the rest of us, it makes no difference if we consume sulfites or not. Sulfites are naturally occurring and harmless to all but a few unfortunate individuals.

  • nunyabizzz

    Furthermore, I know 1 person with a sulfite allergy. He doesn’t simply get headaches, he carries and epi-pen and can go into shock if he consumes sulfites. He avoids wine but also other food itmes with higher levels of sulfites.

  • Bartholomew Broadbent

    I am frequently asked this question. I think David’s reply is incomplete and a little misleading. There is rarely sufficient quantities of sulfites in a wine to result in a headache. If it does, that person would be so highly sensitive to sulfites that they are unable to eat an apple, or a salad, or many thousands of food items which have sulfites added. Generally, there are more sulfites on one leaf of lettuce than there are in an entire bottle of wine. So, the answer should be, unless you are one of the rare few who has issues with sulfites, it is not going to be sulfites in wine which cause headaches. Alcohol, of course, can cause headaches through dehydration, as he correctly points out. However, it is possible to get a headache after drinking a cheap glass of Chardonnay when you don’t get a headache from an entire bottle of some other wine. This is the question which should be addressed. The answer is in the additives used by wineries. In America, there are more than 50 additives regularly used in wine production, in fact, I believe there are about 200 permitted additives. The proof that additives are causing headaches is easily proven with the help of an additive free wine, such as Chateau Musar. I was at a wine dinner in Nashville and a woman sitting next to me said that she could not drink red wine because she got violent headaches and nausea whenever she drank red wine. She blamed the wine. I told her that it was likely an additive to the wine. I told her that I would guarantee that the wine of the night, Chateau Musar, would not give her a headache or make her throw up, unless she was unable to eat grapes. Her husband, also at the table, was a lawyer. I told her not to sue me if it didn’t work but I persuaded her to try a glass of Musar. She agreed. She liked it so much that she had a second glass. The next day, her husband called me. He said “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that my wife did not have a headache or throw up in the night. The bad news is that she now likes this expensive wine!”. The big question which needs to be answered, I wish I had the answer or even the means to do the research, is: Which additives to wine cause headaches? We know it isn’t sulfites, we know it isn’t alcohol unless you get dehydrated after drinking too much. So which is it? Can David Bird answer this or can Decanter do the research and find out? It would be a massive undertaking but would be enormously helpful to everyone in discovering which wines to avoid and which wines to drink merrily. This does, however, mean that ingredient labeling needs to go ahead. This is just one reason that I am all in favour of ingredient labeling on wine bottles.