Wine and Headaches: The Real Culprit

Let’s clear up one thing right off the bat: No, it’s not sulfites causing your headache. Instead, our prime suspects are histamines as this article from Wine Folly states, or, more specifically, biogenic amines.

The Wine Headache Phenomenon

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? That nagging “wine headache”, is seemingly inevitable after even the most sensible sip of red wine. There’s this common belief that sulfites in wine are the headache-inducing villains. But here’s a fun fact from the 1980s: only around 1% of us are allergic to sulfites.

Moreover, Harvard Health says sulfite sensitivity more commonly causes breathing troubles, not headaches. And guess what? Many white wines and even some foods contain sulfites too!

Biogenic Amines: New Wine Villains?

Among the BA family, histamine is the most well-known, and it’s produced when microbes remove carbon dioxide from the amino acid histidine. Does histamine ring a bell? If you’re a hay fever sufferer, you’ve probably popped an antihistamine pill to decrease your body’s production of this biogenic amine.

Histamines, prevalent in fermented or aged foods, can lead to inflammatory flushing and wakefulness at night. Therefore, histamines might be a key player in causing red wine headaches. An anti-histamine before drinking may alleviate symptoms for those with histamine sensitivity.

Now, histamine isn’t the only BA partying in your wine. Others include tyramine, putrescine, and phenylethylamine. In large amounts, these can cause some not-so-pleasant side effects. But don’t jump to label them as toxins just yet. These compounds also perform essential roles. The headache-inducing issue arises when these enzymes are inhibited or present excessively in your food or drink. Then, we’re talking about headaches, breathing difficulties, hypertension or hypotension, allergic reactions, and palpitations.

Wine Production: The Impact on Biogenic Amine Levels

The good news is that we can control the production of wines with low biogenic amines by keeping microbial growth in check. This is where sulfur dioxide jumps in, eliminating bacteria and many wild yeasts during the early stages of fermentation. Experts, like Dr. Sibylle Krieger, head of research on wine bacteria at Lallemand Oenoloy, and others, suggest specific wine-making protocols to minimize BA production.

Natural Wine Movement: A Closer Look

Here’s where things get a tad controversial. In recent years, premium wine producers and proponents of natural wine have avoided sulfites completely or added them only at bottling. As a result, their wines can be jam-packed with biogenic amines.

The lingering question, then, is: How much BA is too much?

There aren’t any legal limits except for fish. Parker-Thomson’s research paper implies that wines made with no added sulfites should carry a warning label due to potentially high BA levels. But natural wine producers argue that this could lead to a domino effect where every addition and process would need to be included on the label, creating confusion and unnecessary panic among wine consumers.

How Do Wines Stack Up Against Other Foods?

Here’s a quick snapshot: Red wine contains 19.6 mg/L of histamine, while white wine has just 1.1 mg/L. Two-day-old fish contains a whopping 209 mg/L. Canned tuna, fermented soy, and fresh fish all contain more histamines than wine.

The challenge with setting BA content laws is that we don’t know what levels are dangerous to most people, and individual reactions can vary wildly. Plus, there are other factors like antidepressants, smoking, and alcohol that can impact these enzymes’ activity.

Tannins: Yay or Nay?

Another theory points the finger at tannins, which are present in more significant amounts in red wines. But consider this: chocolate, tea, and other foods and drinks also have tannins. So, are tannins really to blame?

Harvard Health suggests that while tannins, being plant chemicals, give red wines their flavor and antioxidants, they also spur the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. High levels of serotonin can cause headaches in some folks.

A Word of Caution

While theories abound, it’s essential not to rush to blame wine when insufficient water intake may be the real issue. Additionally, if you have a heightened sensitivity to alcohol or yeast, wine may not be the best choice for you, as it contains both.

The relationship between wine and headaches is complex and can involve multiple factors. Test your theories mindfully and remember the importance of staying hydrated and consult a health professional if you frequently experience adverse effects after drinking wine.


  1. Wine Folly – Red Wine Headache
  2. Harvard Health
  3. Wine Enthusiast
  4. National Library of Medicine
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