Sensitive to Sulfites in Wine? – Probably Not.

Sensitive to Sulfites in Wine? – Probably Not.
  • Dr. Taylor Wallace
  • February 26, 2021

Does that relaxing glass of red wine sometimes come with a price – a headache?  Sulfites are often blamed for causing the affliction but it’s highly unlikely they are the actual culprit.

What are sulfites and sulfite additives?

Sulfites are naturally found in a variety of foods, including but not limited to tea, peanuts, eggs, and many fermented foods.  Sulfite additives serve a dual purpose in most foods.  They help to prevent browning and discoloration of food and also act as antimicrobial agents, particularly effective in preventing mold growth.

You may find sulfite additives at higher levels in foods like baked goods, juices, dried fruits, jams, jellies, and sausages.  Wine contains about 10 times fewer sulfites compared to, for instance, dried fruit.  So, if you don’t get a “PB&J headache” you probably don’t have a sensitivity to sulfites.

Sulfite sensitivities are not allergies.

Sulfite sensitivity is a real thing, but it is not an allergy.  An allergy involves some abnormal response of the immune system, which is not involved whatsoever in the case of a sulfite sensitivity.  While sulfites can trigger reactions, it is typically not headaches.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that less than 1% of the population are sensitive to sulfites. This is likely an over-estimate since it is based upon self-reporting verses medical confirmation.  People with asthma are highest at risk for a sulfite sensitivity.  Sensitivity has been estimated to be prevalent in about 5% of people with asthma.

Why do you always seem to get a “red wine headache?”

There are a few possible explanations for “red wine headaches.”  Keep in mind everyone’s body is different.

When you over consume excessive amounts of alcohol, defined as more than 1-drink per day for women and 2-drinks for men, it can lead to dehydration that often causes headaches due to vasoconstriction.  Many wine glasses can hold multiple drinks.  A “drink” is defined as 14 grams of alcohol or one 5-ounce glass of ~12% alcohol by volume (ABV) wine.  Dehydration, in my mind, is a likely culprit for most people.

Some people are sensitive to tannins in products like wine, tea, and dark chocolate.  If you are sensitive to tannins then avoiding red wine, tea, and dark chocolate should solve your issue.  Tannin sensitivity is again likely a small portion of the population.

Histamines in red wines can constrict and then dilate blood vessels, leading to a headache.  Some people lack adequate amounts of the enzyme (i.e., diamine oxidase) needed to fully metabolize histamines.  You may already be familiar with histamines – they are one of the substances in the body that mediate allergic reactions (i.e., many allergy medications are “anti-histamines”).  Red wines have been estimated to contain 20-200% more histamines.

Tyramine is a compound made from the breakdown of the amino acid tyrosine, during fermentation.  It’s also a chemical released by your brain to act on your neurotransmitters and hormones.  Tyramine is part of your body’s natural fight or flight response and you’ll find it often accompanies histamines in many fermented foods, like aged cheese.

The bottom line.

It’s a good idea to see an allergist if you think you might be sensitive to red wine.  Consuming lighter-colored and lighter-bodied wines can likely help.  Drinking water with wine helps you to stay hydrated and dilutes the compounds mentioned above.

Interested in learning more?  Check out my online educational courses here.  All recommended products can be found on my Amazon store.

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