SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine? Skip to content

Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

(Hint: It's NOT sulphites)

Why do I get headaches after drinking wine? It’s a question I’ve been asked at least a thousand times.

So here it is! A comprehensive guide to all the latest research into what causes headaches after drinking wine.

Much of the research presented here was compiled by Sophie Parker-Thomson MW (Master of Wine) who wrote her MW thesis on this topic. Parker-Thomson and others such as Dr. Patrick Lucas shared their findings during a Master of Wine webinar earlier this year.

I’ll do my best to simplify and explain the specialized terms involved. If anything needs further explanation, please let me know in the comments at the bottom!

Now, buckle up, kids!  Get ready for some science.

Table of Contents

The Confusion about Sulphites and Wine

For years, consumers have been (wrongly) assuming that wines with added sulphites were causing headaches after drinking wine. So I first need to dispel this myth.

What are sulphites?

Sulphites or sulfites are a chemical and is more commonly known as sulphur dioxide or SO2.  SO2 is naturally present in wine and is produced during the fermentation process.

Sulphur is also spelled sulfur and can be referred to as sulphites or sulfites. These are all the same thing.

But SO2 can also be added by the winemaker to wine and is used for two main purposes.


Why are sulphites added to wine?

We add sulphites to wine because it’s an anti-oxidant and prevents wine from ageing too fast. Put another way, sulphites prevent wines from browning. With minimal sulphite additions, wine will continue to smell and taste of fresh fruit instead of ‘past-its-time’ bruised or cooked fruits.

Bruised apple (for white wines) or stewed strawberries or stewed plums (for red wines) are confusingly also flavours associated with good aged wines. But when a wine tastes bruised or cooked when it should taste fresh, we say the wine is oxidized and this is considered a fault.

In short, we add sulphites to wine to keep it tasting fresh longer!

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But that’s not all! 

Sulphites are also anti-microbial and used as a preservative to stabilize wine. This prevents them from say, fermenting again in bottle causing a light unintended spritz.

Sulphur also makes sure that the wines don’t develop unevenly after bottling.

So if you’ve ever purchased many bottles of the same wine – and they all tasted the same, you can thank sulphites for that.

In fact sulphites are so important to wine, it’s really unfortunate that people have incorrectly linked their headaches to the presence of added sulphites in wine.

How did we confuse sulphites as (wrongly) causing headaches after drinking wine?

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, governments didn’t regulate the use of sulphites and some producers overused it. This did lead to some hospitalizations and fatalities. Obviously, this gave sulphites some bad publicity.

Now, use of sulphites is tightly regulated by all countries.

Furthermore, the science about determining the precise amount of SO2 required is now completely understood. It’s calculated by figuring out the amount of free to bound forms of SO2 in each specific wine. And although this may sound complicated, it’s not for winemakers.

Even people who make wine at home can access ways to measure the exact amount of SO2 they need to stabilize their wine. 

As a result, very few wines run the risk of being over-sulphated as they were in the past.

Only 1 in 100 people are sensitive to sulphites. But many more have adverse reactions after consuming wine


It’s true that some people report negative side effects from consuming sulphites. And although not a true allergen, sulphites are grouped as allergens because they can produce a similar response to a very small group of people.

In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration says only 1% of people are sensitive to sulphites. These people tend to be asthmatics

And fewer people than that will have a life-threatening response.

So you could be part of that 1% having a reaction to sulphites. But, if you are not an asthmatic, then your negative reaction to wine is likely caused by something else.

Okay, okay.. so there is another small group of people who are not asthmatics but still react to sulphites. These people break out into hives and swell. It’s a response called urticaria and angiooedema and it can last for weeks.

On a different thread, we know that as many as 10% of the population has a reaction to wine regularly.

So the question becomes, why is an additional 9% of the population reacting poorly to wine?

And if you’re still not convinced that your headaches are not from the sulphites?  There’s more…!


As many as 10% of the population has a reaction to wine regularly.
But only 1% of the population has a reaction to sulphites.

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For those who are indeed sensitive to sulphites, Parker-Thomson says that the reaction is mostly a respiratory one. One that is experienced most often by acute asthmatics. In fact the OIV (the International Organization of Vine and Wine) says that sulphite sensitivity is only expressed by 1.7% of asthmatics. Steroid dependent asthmatics are most at risk of having a reaction to sulphites.

In rare cases, the person may have a serious anaphalactic response where the entire body has a sudden and severe reaction. Constriction of the airways, chest pain, cramps, and anxiety or sense of doom may be felt. Soon, a dangerous drop in blood pressure can occur and water may fill up the lungs.

If you have a severe allergic-like reaction to sulphites, carrying an Epi-Pen is the antidote. Epi-Pens are essentially adrenaline (epinephrin).

Of course, then there is that other group of people who break out into hives after consuming sulphites.

Collectively, these two groups make up the 1% who react to sulphites.

But the take-away point here is that people who are allergic to sulphites do not get migraines or headaches.

On this point, here are the medical management guidelines from the US Center for Disease Control for assessing reactions from sulphite sensitivity and what to do about it.

People who react to sulphites do not get migraines or headaches after drinking wine!

I’m going to reiterate this just incase you are skimming and missed the main point presented here.

People who react to sulphites do not get migraines or headaches after drinking wine.

Mainly it’s acute asthmatics who have poor reactions to sulphites. Their reaction is purely a respiratory one meaning, it makes it hard for them to breathe. The other people who react to sulphites, break out into hives.


Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

So then, what is causing headaches after drinking wine?

In short, it’s biogenic amines that are causing headaches from wine consumption. Precisely, only 2 of the 14 biogenic amines out there cause headaches (and other allergic responses). These are histamine and tyramine.

Histamine, is the most researched of the two. In fact, histamine levels in food is already highly regulated throughout the world because it’s been known to cause headaches when consumed.

Conclusive research is still lacking on whether tyramine is also an offender. Yet scientists believe this is one of the culprits causing your head to feel like a football too.

What are biogenic amines?

So, what are biogenic amines?

Amines are organic compounds that play an important role in living organisms. Biogenic means ‘produced by living organisms or biological processes’. Or for the science nerds out there, biogenic amines are naturally occuring lightweight nitrogen compounds.

For the rest of us non-science types, you may have already heard of seratonin and histamine? These are 2 biogenic amines that are also neurotransmitters in the brain.

Other biogenic amines, such as epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline) are hormones and can be used as medicine. Coincidentally, this is the hormone in Epi-Pens, the known cure for severe anaphalactic responses to sulphites.

The point is, plants and humans produce biogenic amines naturally and most of the time, they help to regulate our bodies in healthy ways.


Why do biogenic amines cause headaches after drinking wine?

But although important for our body functions, histamine and tyramine are undesirable in foods and beverages. Moreover when consumed at high concentrations, they cause headaches.

Let’s take histamine as an example. In normal circumstances within the body, histamine produces an immune response: it dilates blood vessels; excites the gastrointestinal muscles; and promotes the secretion of gastric acid and mucus. These are all good things.

But in a toxic situation – such as when biogenic amines are ingested with food and wine – histamine mimics an allergic reaction. This is bad.


What reactions do people who consume dangerous levels of biogenic amines have?

Allergic responses include things such as migraines, headaches, flushing (when your face turns red), hives, nausea, vomiting, stomach ache, nasal congestion, and constriction of your bronchus muscles making it hard to breathe.

You can see how many of the reactions to biogenic amines overlap with the negative responses to sulphites. However, there is one main exception.

Biogenic amines can cause headaches or migraines whereas sulphites do not.

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Are histamine and tyramine the only things causing problems in wine?

According to Dr. Lucas from the University of Bordeaux, there are in fact a total of 4 biogenic amines that are causing problems in wine. But it’s only 2 of those that are causing headaches.

As mentioned above, histamine and tyramine are the biogenic amines that scientists think are causing headaches and some other allergic reactions.

Another 2 biogenic amines causing problems are cadaverine and putrescine. However, these simply mask the lovely aromas in wine. Cadaverine and putrescine cause no adverse affects in people.

So although wine producers should seriously pay attention to cadaverine and putrescine, they don’t hurt people. They just make wine smell and taste less, or make them smell bad.

In fact, current research suggests that when we smell brettanomyces in wine,  it may sometimes actually be cadaverine or putrescine that we are smelling. Brettanomyces is the compound responsible for the smelly poo or stinky barnyard animal aroma. It’s an aroma that takes away the fruity quality in the wine. 

So, controlling biogenic amine buildup is also a way to prevent wines from smelling like poo. But that topic is for another post.


So, if it's histamine in wine that causes me to have a headache after drinking wine, can I take an anti-histamine to prevent a headache?

Nope… dammit! It just doesn’t work that way.

Biogenic Amines and the Food Industry

Fermented Foods have long been known to potentially carry dangerous levels of biogenic amines

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It’s long been known that fermented foods have the potential to contain dangerous levels of histamine. Canned fish, vegetables, and even dairy products such as yoghurt and blue cheese are usual suspects. Tomatoes, aubergine (eggplant), and strawberries can be problematic too.

So it’s easy to understand why the food industry tests fermented and canned products routinely and has allowable histamine limits for each product.

We just haven’t established those limits for wine yet.

Challenges to regulating biogenic amines in the wine industry

Since these 4 biogenic amines are so probematic for wine, the wine industry should be regulating and testing for them in their wines. Unfortunately, this is not an easy thing to do.

One challenge of regulating histamine levels, is that the known levels of biogenic amines in wine are tiny in comparison to the allowable levels in food. Therefore, we cannot simply transfer the histamine levels in food regulations over to wine.

For example, Dr. Lucas from the University of Bordeaux compared the histamine toxicity levels from a few studies and found this comparison:


Toxic levels of histamine in tuna

  • After eating tuna that contained 100 mg of histamine, 1 out of 8 subjects experienced flushing and mild headaches.
  • After consuming 150 mg, 2 out of 8 subjects experienced flushing and mild headaches.
  • But after consuming 180 mg of histamine, 4 out of every 8 subjects experienced flushing and headaches.

*** All of these subjects reported being healthy with no intolerance of histamine.

Toxic levels of histamine in wine

  • after drinking wine with 100 mg of histamine, people with no reported intolerance of histamine were fine (this study used only 2 people though)
  • after drinking wine with between 0.12 – 4.2 mg histamine, there was no statistically noticeable effects on patients (on 20 volunteers)


  • for those with an intolerance to histamine, only 4 mg in sparkling wine was enough to cause headaches in (12 out of 40 patients)! 😱

The problem here is alcohol exacerbates the allergic response. This is because alcohol as well as other compounds in wine inhibit the mono amine oxidases (MOA) and the diamine oxidases (DOA) that break histamine down. To sum it up, the effects of histamine toxicity are stronger when you ingest it with alcohol.

In another study with sparkling wine, only 4 mg of histamine was enough to cause flushing and headaches in 12 out of 40 patients who have an intolerance to histamine. So, it only takes tiny amounts to make some people ill.


We consume more wine in one sitting than other foodstuffs

Another reason why biogenic amines cause headaches more often from ingesting wine over food, is this: we simply consume more wine in one sitting than we would consume fish, or cheese or the other foodstuffs.

In fact, in Naples, six young healthy adults aged 22-27 were recently sent to hospital after drinking about 3 glasses each (450 ml) of sparkling red wine on tap. (see Esposito et al. 2019 link below)

It’s also true that we have to count the accumulated amounts of histamine and biogenic amines in everything you are consuming and get the grand total of each of these substances to know if it will cause adverse affects. So, histamine in the fish + histamine in the cheese + histamine in the wine = the amount of histamine in your body.

Therefore, there may be no biogenic amine buildup in the wine. But if you are drinking wine (which obviously has alcohol in it), then only 4 mg of histamine in food could cause sensitive people to feel ill.

This brings me pause when I think of the trend of serving canned fish in restaurants. Canned fish holds some of the highest allowable histamine levels for foodstuffs. It’s a frightening prospect for the wine industry to think we cannot recommend a wine to drink with this.

Challenges with regulating biogenic amines in wine

Currently, no country has set legal limits restricting the level of biogenic amines in wine. However, a handful of countries have ‘recommended limits’ that range between 2 – 10 mg/l.

Both Switzerland and Australia have recommended limits up to 10 mg/l. However, we already know (see above) that people who have an intolerance to histamine are affected by as little as 4 mg/l when consuming wine.


Biogenic Amine Recommended Limits by Country
*in milligrams per litre

  • 2 – Germany
  • 3.5 – Netherlands
  • 6 – Belgium
  • 5-9 Finland
  • 8 France
  • 10 Switzerland + Australia

*** these are recommended amounts only and not mandatory. Notice the range!

How can I tell which wines have toxic levels of biogenic amines in them?

The worst thing is, consumers can’t tell which wines have detrimental amounts of biogenic amines in them and cause headaches. Even scientists are just beginning to isolate the complicated conditions that cause the fermentation process to produce biogenic amines.
And it is complicated. Sarah Parker-Thomson’s research isolated 4 conditions that can lead to biogenic amine production. There are even more preconditions within those 4.
The jaw-dropping conclusion however, is that natural, low-intervention and organic wines where sulphur dioxide or SO2 has not been added, are likely the biggest culprits causing headaches! Sparkling (and organic sparkling) wines are also known offenders. Finally, wines with high pH levels (and therefore, low acidity) are more likely to encourage biogenic amine buildup in them.



The jaw-dropping conclusion is that natural, low intervention and organic wines where sulphur dioxide or SO2 has not been added are likely the biggest culprits causing headaches after drinking wine!

Your paragraph text37
Generally, consumers can't know which wines will give them headaches

Which wines are causing headaches?
Here are the wine styles that are (kindof) more likely to be harmful...

These wines are more likely to have harmful amounts of biogenic amines for people sensitive to histamines:

  • with low or no sulphur additions (natural wines, low-intervention wines, organic wines)
  • sparkling wines made in the traditional method, especially organic ones
  • red wines with low acidity (because they have a higher pH) – or red wines from warm climates
  • wines that have gone through the malolactic fermentation (all red wines and some white wines)

But this recommendation is such a stretch and not great for making real-life buying choices because it’s by no means fully accurate.

But, just because a wine is organic or is sparkling doesn’t mean that it has high levels of histamine and tyramine for certain. Similarly, not all wines that are put through the malolactic fermentation cause headaches.

It just means those wines are more likely than others to have detrimental amounts of biogenic amines in them.

It’s clear that the wine industry must tackle this. And the most direct way to do that is for wines to add sulphur. But that’s not the only way.

Choose These Wines

The simplist recipe (when truly this is not a simple approach at all) for headache prevention is to ask wine producers directly if they are adding sulphur to their wine. This can be either be as field additions or in the winery. The finished wines must have 20 mg/l of free SO2.


Overall, sensitive consumers should:

  1. choose wines with high acidity (and therefore have low pH). This means buy wines from cool climates.
  2. choose wines that have not gone through ML – which means to avoid red wines
  3. avoid sparkling wines and organic wines made in the traditional method
  4. avoid wines such as organic and low intervention wines with no sulphur added.


Your paragraph text39
Research has proven that it’s biogenic amines (and mostly the amine, histamine) are causing some people to get headaches after drinking wine. It is NOT the sulphites that cause headaches!
Yet, wine isn’t the only place where histamines are present; it’s a common ingredient in many foodstuffs such as tinned fish. 
Consequently, if you are sensitive to histamines, you would have to add all up of the histamines in the food and wine you are about to consume in order to know if you will consume a harmful amount. 


Even as little as 4mg/l histamine causes headaches for sensitive types when drinking alcohol.
Yet, one way sensitive consumers can avoid getting headaches is to avoid the types of wines that are most likely to have high levels of histamine in them. These include wines with low or no sulphur additions, sparkling wines made in the traditional method (especially organic ones), and red wines from warm climates. And DO NOT consume these wines with canned sardines, blue cheese and other foods known for high histamine levels.
Still, the best way forward is for the wine industry to step up. That means winemakers will have to understand the 4 Necessary Preconditions for Biogenic Amine Buildup in Wines and intervene along these steps. Furthermore, we’ll have a tough job ahead of us since we’ll need to rethink our dedication to low-sulphur wines.


Research proves that the best way to prevent biogenic amine buildup is to include a dose of sulphur!

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Biogenic Amines: A Claim for Wines‘ by y Maria Martuscelli and Dino Mastrocola (from the Faculty of Bioscience and Technology for Food, Agriculture and Environment, University of Teramo, Italy) but published in creative commons intechopen on, November 5th 2018, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.80362. Accessed on October 6th, 2021.

Biogenic Amines – the impact on wine sanitary status and quality‘ hosted by by Sam Herrop MW, the Master of Wine (IMW) Webinar Series on July 22, 2021 with Sophie Parker-Thomson MW, Dr. Patrick Lucas, director of the Oenology Research Unit at ISVV of the University of Bordeaux, Dr Sibylle Krieger-Weber, R&D Manager at Lallemand Oenology, and Ann Dumont, Communications Manager at Lallemand Oenology

Level of Biogenic Amines in Red and White Wines, Dietary Exposure, and Histamine-Mediated Symptoms upon Wine Ingestion‘ Esposito et al. 2019 in US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Healths, Vol. 24 (19), assessed October 26th, 2021.

Occurrence of biogenic amine-forming lactic acid bacteria in wine and cider‘ in Food Microbiology Volume 27, Issue 8, M. Cotton et al. December 2010, Pages 1078-1085, assessed Sept 27, 2021.

SO2 and Wine: A Review’ Dr. Creina Stockley et al. OIV Collective Expertise Document, OIV Publications, 1st Ed published March 2021, assessed Nov 28, 2021.

‘Understanding Wine Technology; The Science of Wine Explained’. 3rd ed published 2010. by David Bird. entries on acetaldehyde, fermentation and others

* See also links within the text above

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  1. SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

    Nicely written and researched, Joanne! Thanks for presenting this.

    I think it’s important for consumers to understand the distinction between “organically grown” and “organically produced” wines. Grapes grown organically, where it is generally permissible to apply sulfur in the vineyard as a prevention for powdery mildew, are grown without chemical herbicides such as Monsanto’s glyphosate product, RoundUp, which kills soil microbes, or chemical fertilizers which increase water demand and degrade the soils.

    Wines which have an Organic designation on the label, are produced without sulfur additions during the winemaking process, potentially setting the stage for biogenic amine production in higher pH wines.

    We can support the organic farmers who are protecting the soils, honoring terroir, and reducing climate impact, while still avoiding potentially problematic wines.

    • SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

      Well said, Brad and good point! It was not my intention to sway consumers away from organic wines (side point – I’ve been meaning to write a post on glyphosate!)- although if a consumer is sensitive to histamines, that may be a safer choice…for now.

      For other readers, I should point out that Brad is specifically referring to organic wine law in the United States. There are 2 categories of organic labelling under USDA regulations.

      1) ‘wines made from organic grapes’ – all grapes are grown under certified organic regulations without synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. These wines are allowed to add 100 mg/l sulphites as field additions which would prevent biogenic amine (BA) buildup and be headache free
      2) ‘organic’ – if a bottle of wine simply says ‘organic’ it means that all grapes are also grown under certified organic regulations as well. However, the winemaking further follows organic rules – one of them being that no sulfur is added and that the allowable limit of sulphites in the finished wine is 10 mg/l – which is not enough to protect the wine from biogenic amine buildup IF all of the other preconditions are there.

      So purchasing bottles from the US that say ‘wines made from organic grapes’ is the better choice. And yes! I support and love organic and biodynamic farmers! Yet, I’m still going to argue that just because the producer is allowed to add sulphur as field additions – it doesn’t mean they are.

      FYI, in the EU, the term ‘organic’ only refers to the grape-growing. Therefore, the producer could be protecting their wine with sulphur or might not be. It’s up to the producer.

      Unfortunately, it’s still up to the consumer to find out from the producer what their sulphur regime is. Or, if they are protecting their wines from BA in any other way.

      But YES! Buy organic. Support Organic! Love Mother Earth (no sarcasm there).

  2. SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

    Such a great article – thank you! My WSET class last month touched on this study but obviously we didn’t have the chance to go into the depth that you have here. Also appreciate your style of formatting with the headings and summary – such an easy yet educational read! Looking forward to post #2. And while I’m not affected, I have a friend who is major red drinker who avoids all South American wines due to “headaches from sulphites” (eyeroll)

    • SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

      Thanks for reading the post, Marjorie! Your friend has made a ‘generally’ decent call in avoiding South American wines as many regions will have warmer climates resulting in wines with higher pH levels – a perfect condition for biogenic amine buildup. However, not all wines from South American are grown in warm places – in Chile there’s Casablanca and Limari which are cool climate regions. In Argentina, Neúquen produces wines with low pH.

  3. SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

    Good article. Well researched into one of the most common questions that everyone in wine retail faces.

    10+ years ago I went looking for research on Amine levels in wine, especially to see if there were country or wine grape variations in levels. I tripped over one study from South Africa which concluded, at a very high level, that Amine levels could vary by country or region. The study was very small and no deep or persuasive conclusions could be drawn from it – but certainly the inference was that a wine made in France or the USA could have higher levels of Amines than say one made in Canada (yes, it did mention us) but that South African wines were among the lowest.

    I have never seen any other studies along these lines so if you trip over any please let me know.

    • SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

      Thanks for taking the time, Paul! Likewise, I’d love to know what your South African reference is! The reason why Canadian wines are less likely to have high levels of histamine and tyramine is due to the cool climate. Wines with high pH and therefore low acidity are more likely to cause biogenic amine buildup. Generally, Canadian wines are known for their natural thirst quenching acidity. (Although, perhaps it means southern Okanagan wines such as Osoyoos and Okanagan Falls may be problematic (if they are not using sulphur!)

      If you link to some of the papers on biogenic amines I have listed in the references – most of these mention the studies that have been done so far. Not all of them can be found online unfortunately.

      But yes!! Noted. I’ll send anything else I find your way!!

  4. SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

    This was a great summary of the paper, can’t wait for part 2

    • SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

      Thanks Ride! (You don’t mind if I call you Ride, do you!?) I’ll make sure I tag you when it comes out!

  5. SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

    Very interesting. I know that I do often get a mild stuffy nose after drinking wine…like a bit of sinus inflammation. Happens sometimes with beer too but not really with spirits. Interesting about Brett too, but I almost never smell that in wine unless it’s natural wine.

    • SommWine | Why do I get headaches after drinking wine?

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, Patrick! I truly appreciate it.

      I cannot comment what it is about beer causing sinus issues – not my specialty. And really, the problem with isolating people’s reaction to wine is that wines are so bloody complicated.

      And I’m sure the industry would rather fund research that tells us wines are good for us, rather than wines are bad for us (to their detriment).

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