Wine Headache? Blame the Sulfites

Headache or Hangover?

Many of us have been there, you wake up the next morning a little foggy with a headache – it must be the sulfites in that bottle of wine, right? Everyone says it – so it must be true – and the internet never lies.

While it might make you feel better to blame the sulfites, it probably isn’t the case according to Frederick Freitag. He is the associate director of Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago and a board member of the Nation Headache Foundation. Frederick says – “Sulfites can cause allergy and asthma symptoms, but they don’t cause headaches.”

What are Sulfites?

Sulfites, also called sulfur dioxide, are naturally occurring chemicals found in many foods such as black tea, peanuts, eggs, and fermented foods. They are widely used in food production to reduce oxidation, reduce spoilage, and maintain freshness.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), approximately 1% of the population is sensitive to sulfites causing side effects such as hives, swelling, stomach pain, and diarrhea. About 5% of people who are sensitive to sulfites also have asthma irritating the respiratory tract. A very small percentage of the population can have an anaphylaxis reaction which can be potentially fatal – hence the required warning label on wine bottles.

Wine Headaches

I am not saying sulfites “DON’T” cause headaches, there is just a little evidence to support the headache claim – dehydration is the biggest cause.

Wine is a complicated concoction of alcohol, histamine, tyramine, and flavonoids, which may also contribute to symptoms such as allergic reactions. Many people falsely claim that European wines don’t contain sulfites and don’t cause headaches – sorry to tell you, but they probably do contain sulfites but typically have lower alcohol content which is the primary cause of a headache due to dehydration.

Sulfite Benefits

Sulfites are naturally occurring chemicals that help wine and food stay fresh and prevents spoilage. The sulfites bind to oxygen to help minimize browning and discoloration and are a very effective anti-microbial preventing spoilage. If they are not added to wine, the wine might spoil very quickly so be warned. Organic and Natural wines almost always contain sulfites unless the label is listed as “Sulfite Free.”

Avoiding Sulfites

The Federal Government requires that any wine containing over 10 ppm (parts per million) contain a warning statement “Contains Sulfites” on the label. Note Europe DOES NOT REQUIRE this warning label though almost certainly does contain sulfites in their wine.

But if you still want to avoid sulfites, stay away from dried fruit, soft drinks, jams, jellies, and fruit juices which all can contain well over 100 ppm (up to 3000 ppm for French Fries). Commercial wines – especially value wines which are notorious for high levels of sulfites.

Koi Zen Cellars wine almost always contains less than 30 ppm.

But watch out for the hidden sulfites (up to 50 ppm) in products such as fresh shrimp, corn syrup, cornstarch, fresh mushrooms, clam chowder, and guacamole. If you can eat these, then don’t blame the wine.

Sulfite Advice

Enjoy your wine responsibly and prevent dehydration by drinking one glass of water for every glass of wine you consume and help spread the word that the sulfites in Koi Zen Cellars wines almost positively don’t cause headaches by sharing this post with everyone you know.


Darius – the Zen Winemaker