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I used to think red wine was what’s causing me headaches and blamed sulphites. When we started making our own DIY wines, I stopped getting headaches. But then I learned more about it and concluded it couldn’t have been the sulphites. It still remains a mystery to me why I used to get headaches from commercial wines and I don’t anymore.


Could it be sulphites?

In winemaking, the most common sulphites are sulphur dioxide (SO2) and potassium meta-bisulphite. Sulphites, which are produced by many organisms, are naturally found in grapes, oranges and hens’ eggs. They’re also produced by our own bodies at a rate of about 1 gram a day. They’re a naturally occurring by-product of the fermentation of grape sugars by yeasts so all wine contains sulphites.

Because sulphites have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, they’re used to preserve foods. For example, dried fruit, fresh vegetables, fruit juice, potato chips and shrimp. Just-picked grapes sometimes need them to help prevent wild yeast strains and other bacteria from taking control.

In craft winemaking, we’ll add a little just prior to bottling so bacteria or residual yeasts are killed off.


Are you sensitive to sulphites?

About 1% of the population has a sensitivity to sulphites, which results in respiratory problems. For asthmatics, the reactions occur when sulphites are near the maximum allowable levels of over 300mg per litre. To test your sensitivity, eat 5 dried apricots so you can see what happens. This is a good test because it will have the equivalent amount of sulphites as 3 – 5 glasses of red wine.

White wines and sweet wines have more sulphites than red wines. Red wines have more tannins which act as natural antioxidants which perform a similar role to sulphites. Nature produces less sulphites in red wines because of this.


Is it Histamines?

I know people who’ve said they get headaches after drinking red wine so the cause may be histamines. Histamines are one in a group of nitrogen-based compounds which are called amines. People who suffer from histamine intolerance lack certain enzymes that help the body metabolize them so they can be susceptible. Histamines are found at high levels in aged cheese, foods that contain yeast, red wines, sauerkraut, spinach and also tomatoes.

If you get headaches from these foods, then histamines may be the cause.


Could it be Tyramine?

Another potential cause is tyramine which is an amino acid that helps regulate blood pressure. It occurs naturally in the body, and it’s also found in certain foods. For example, beer on tap or home-brew, soy products and strong or aged cheeses. It’s also found in broad or fava beans, fish, sausage, salami and some overripe fruits,

If you get headaches from these foods, then tyramine may be the cause.


Is it Tannins?

The final potential culprit could be tannins which are found in the skins and seeds of grapes and oak barrels. White wines to not spend time with their skins during the winemaking process but red wines do. Tannins cause the body to release serotonin which dilates and constricts blood vessels in the brain. Foods that are high in tannins include black tea and dark chocolate.

If you get headaches from these foods, then tannins may be the cause.


Some tips

I may never know what was causing my headaches after drinking red wine but I’m glad it doesn’t happen anymore. Maybe it’s because craft wines tend to have less sulphites in them. Some commercial wines need more if they are designed to be aged for many years. Wikipedia has more information on what’s causing my headaches.

Here are some tips that might help you: First and foremost, drink in moderation. Also, if you consume an equal amount of water and wine (in separate glasses, of course) it can help. Finally, enjoy your wine with food because it elevates the experience.