Sulfides in wine produce headaches : myth or reality?

Red and white wine

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Sulphides or sulphur dioxide are naturally present in wine at concentrations up to 10 milligrams per liter. Many winemakers add more sulphides to preserve and stabilize the wine. However,  people add more than others… up to 400 milligrams per liter according to the wine type. So is that alcohol causing headaches in many people?

In fact, many products in wine are subject to cause these famous headaches. There are alcohol, tannin, sulphides and histamine.


In regards to alcohol, it would be caused by oxidation in acetaldehyde or ethanal, a toxic product causing headaches. Ethanol oxidizes in acetaldehyde and then in acetic acid by enzymes in liver cells. A part of the population (mostly from Asia and The middle-East) doesn’t  have the gene to make enzymes for oxidation from acetaldehyde to acetic acid. These people should avoid drinking alcohol. 


Tannin is not only in wine. It is also present in chocolate, tea and soya. Tannin causes the release of serotonin, a neurotransmittor, leading to headaches.


Sulphides are found in wine but also in dried fruits, canned vegetables, jams, beer and many other things. They cause an allergy in a part of the population. Symptoms can appear a half an hour after drinking wine. For Dr de Waele, it’s not sulphides that produce headaches because the white wine contains more sulphides; but, the red wine leads to more headaches.

Regarding the last product, histamin, it can cause a syndrom called RWH (red wine headache) appearing fifteen minutes after drinking wine. According to Ariel Fenster from McGill University, histamine can be a factor. It is a vasodilator, a substance which dilates the blood vessels and then leads to a rush of blood in the brain resulting in a headache. Histamin is found, in a few red wines, in high concentration. All kinds of wine made of  black Pinot (a variety of grapes) affect people allergic to this compound. Thus, you should check wines from Bourgogne and champagne made with black grapes.

One thing is for sure, sulphides are not the only product causing headaches. One of these things or a combination of four? You can try to find out!


La gueule de bois

Sulphites – Priority allergens

Intolérance aux sulfites – Allergie aux sulfites

Wine and headache.

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