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Headaches and Wine: Don’t Blame the Sulfites

Headache sufferers who believe sulfites from a glass of wine are responsible for their pain may be interested to know another cause is likely to blame.

Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague credits the late senator Strom Thurmond with ensuring that the words “contains sulfites” appear on every bottle of wine—a notification he lobbied to include in the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act.

“This back-label notification has led to a great many misunderstandings among those who attribute health problems, primarily headaches, to sulfites in wine, specifically red wine,” she wrote.

Experts say less than 1% of people in the United States are truly sensitive to sulfites, and they are asthmatics who develop shortness of breath, not headaches, Teague said. People who find themselves reacting to wine may be reacting to something else in it, including proteins, histamines, or the tannins in red wine.

No wine is sulfite-free, Teague noted, as sulfites are inorganic salts produced in the fermentation process. Often wine makers will add sulfites to a wine to help stabilize it after that process, but sulfites are added to other foods as well, from potato chips to lemon juice to canned tuna.

Regarding headache prevention and wine, Teague offers common-sense directions—especially useful prior to the upcoming holiday season: Drink in moderation; avoid inexpensive wines, which often have added sugars and boost the alcohol content of wine, and when drinking, be sure to eat.

“Drinking even a modest amount of alcohol without food is a sure way to a headache,” she wrote.



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