Whether you like red, white or sparkling, there's nothing more relaxing and comforting than enjoying a glass of wine over a delicious meal.
But if you suffer from headaches and congestion after a few sips of vino, it could be a sign that you have a sensitivity.
How Histamines in Wine Can Cause Headaches
When your body encounters an allergen, mast cells in your immune system release chemicals called histamines, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
This triggers the production of antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE), which travel to cells and release chemicals that cause headaches, sneezing, stuffy nose and itchy, red eyes.
"When people have some congestion or a scratchy throat after drinking wine, they aren't allergic to the wine itself but to the histamines in the wine," Tania Elliott, MD, allergist and clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Dr. Elliott says that some people are highly sensitive to histamines because their bodies aren't able to break it down because they lack a specific enzyme, or they naturally have higher levels of histamine in their blood and drinking wine increases it.
Alcohol also inhibits the enzyme as well as dilates blood vessels — a headache-inducing combo, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Histamines are found in many foods and drinks, though. Some histamine foods include packaged and processed foods, fermented foods, smoked meats and cheese. That's why some people who are highly sensitive to histamines go on a low-histamine diet to help alleviate symptoms, Dr. Elliott says.
All wine contains histamines, but red wine has a little more than other types, Dr. Elliott says. So if you experience these symptoms, steer clear of Merlot, Chianti and Bordeaux and stick to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling instead.
What About the Sulfites in Wine?
Sulfites, aka sulfur dioxide, are preservatives found in wine and in some foods. While many people claim that the sulfites in wine can cause headaches, they are more associated with allergy and asthma symptoms, Dr. Elliott says.
"Sulfites tend to cause more allergy and asthma symptoms in select people who have a sulfite allergy, rather than headaches," Dr. Elliott says. "Histamine is present in those foods in addition to wine and is likely more responsible for headaches than the sulfites."
Wine and beer, dried fruits and vegetables, pickled foods, shrimp and packaged potatoes are some of the biggest culprits of sulfites, which can make asthma and food allergy symptoms worse, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of sulfites in fresh fruits and vegetables in 1986 because of the number of severe allergy cases related to them.
For this reason, wine labels must disclose that they contain sulfites if they meet a certain threshold. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, all wine that has sulfur dioxide or a sulfiting agent with a level of 10 or more parts per million (ppm) are required to declare on their label that the wine "contains sulfites."
Is There Such Thing as Sulfite-Free Wine?
Contrary to what most people think, it's actually impossible to get sulfite-free wine. Sulfites are added to wine to help it stay fresh and prevent it from oxidizing. Sulfites are also a natural by-product of the fermentation process that goes into producing wine.
"Sulfites are needed to help prevent bacteria in wine. Wines that are mass-produced tend to use more sulfites than others, but natural wines aren't the answer," says Dylan York, a principal sommelier at The Sommelier Society of America, the first professional wine organization in the U.S.
Because winemaking involves a lot of skin contact, you need sulfites to help control the environment, prevent contamination and extend the wine's shelf life.
"What people should focus on is finding a wine that is made in smaller production and with more care. Look for wines made from farms that follow responsible and sustainable practices, that are organically produced and use biodynamics," York says.
Red Wine Has Fewer Sulfites Than White
When it comes to sulfite content in wine, York says that white wine has more sulfites than red.
"White wines are made without the presence of skin, so more sulfur dioxide is used to prevent them from browning and oxidizing, while red wine is made with the grape skin, creating a natural antioxidant defense," York explains.
Organic wine might have lower amounts of sulfites because they eliminate the use additives and preservatives, Amy Goodson, RD, CSSD, a registered dietitian based in Dallas, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
But regardless of whether the wine is organic, all wine contains histamines, so organic varieties won't do your symptoms many favors, Dr. Elliott says.
"Organic wine just has purer ingredients, but you can still get allergy-like symptoms from drinking it," she says.
Can Wine Filters Remove Histamines or Sulfites?
As more people notice their sensitivity to wine, wine filters have emerged, claiming to remove the histamines and sulfites. While it doesn't hurt to try these products, Dr. Elliott says to proceed with caution.
"You can give it a try but don't expect it to be a magic wand," she warns.
"I'm very wary of the science behind these wands and aero filters. Unless there's something on that wand that binds to the histamine, that could make sense," Dr. Elliott says. "But these wands need microfilters to catch these particles in the wine, and there isn't any real indication that they have them," she explains.
Goodson says that most of the wine filters out there are actually oxygenators that claim to reduce sulfites. "
This occurs by adding oxygen to the wine. Oxygen catalyzes several chemical reactions that allow for the release of compounds, such as sulfites," she explains. Still, there isn't scientific evidence that adding oxygen to wine will reduce sulfites, and it doesn't eliminate the histamines in wine that can cause allergy-like symptoms.
These wine filters also don't decrease the alcohol content in a drink, which can lead to headaches.
York agrees, stating that you're better off saving your money and investing it in a high-quality bottle of wine.
"People should learn more about the wines they're buying and how they're made. The cheap stuff isn't always the best," he says. He recommends buying wine from vineyards like Alexana in Oregon, Benziger in the Sonoma Valley and Frog's Leap in the Napa Valley.
"These vineyards use responsible and sustainable farming practices, which improve the quality of the wine," he says. For example, Alexana uses 18 different soils to grow their grapes, which infuse a variety of complex flavors in their wine.
Another Reason Wine May Cause Headaches
You might be getting headaches after drinking wine because it's high in sugar and spikes and drops in blood sugar can cause headaches, Dr. Elliott says.
When your blood alcohol content drops significantly after a heavy night of drinking, you start to experience hangover symptoms, which include headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Limiting your intake of wine and staying hydrated with water as you drink alcohol can help reduce your risks of developing a headache and a hangover. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that women stick to one alcoholic drink daily and men up to two alcoholic drinks.
FYI, a five-ounce glass of wine is considered one serving.
If you're looking for a low-sugar wine option, choose brut or extra-brut champagne or prosecco, which have lower sugar content compared to other wines.
York notes that there are many different reasons you might get a headache after drinking wine that aren't directly related to the wine itself.
"We all have different intolerances and sensitivities. Your headache could be related to what you ate with your glass of red wine — maybe it's the creamy sauce in your pasta. So it's important to consider all of these factors before assuming it's the wine," he says.
How to Reduce Allergy-Like Symptoms From Drinking Wine
Fortunately, you don't have to say sayonara your favorite bottle just because you get a headache or stuffy nose after a few sips.
Although you can't remove the histamines in wine, Dr. Elliott says taking over-the-counter allergy medication, like Zyrtec or Allegra, 30 minutes before drinking can help you avoid the annoying symptoms that come with it.
"These meds don't cross the blood-brain barrier like Benadryl does. You can also try a nasal spray like Afrin. You just don't want to use a nasal spray regularly," she says.
Nasal sprays work to constrict the blood vessels in your nose, helping relieve congestion; but if you rely on nasal sprays heavily, your body may forget how to regulate the blood vessels on their own, which can cause rebound stuffiness.
The truth is that people who have a wine allergy should avoid drinking it altogether. "If you have extreme swelling, hives or have issues breathing when drinking wine, you might be allergic to the grapes in wine," Dr. Elliott says.
"A true wine allergy can kill you, so if that's the case, you should stick to other types of alcohol. Note that alcohol also has histamines, but wine has more," she says.
Goodson says some low-histamine alcoholic beverages like rum, gin and vodka are good alternatives. But if you have a grape allergy, beware that other liquors such as brandy (including cognac and Armagnac) are made with grapes.
As always, it's important to consult your doctor or an allergist if you suspect you have a food allergy. They can help you pinpoint the actual causes of your symptoms and recommend the best dietary and lifestyle changes for you.
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunocology: "Histamine Definition"
- The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Foods Can Affect Asthma"
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: "Sulfites: FDA Limits Uses, Broadens Labeling"
- Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau: "Wine Labeling: Declaration of Sulfites"
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Fact Sheets - Moderate Drinking"
- The Mayo Clinic: "Hangovers"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Ask the doctor: What causes red wine headaches?"