Why Wine Makes You Hungover

We’ve all been there: you wake up from a long night and too many glasses of wine with a splitting headache, thirsty, and desperate to blame the hangover on anything other than your actual, ahem, drinking. “It must’ve been the sulfites,” you think to yourself while reaching for a bottle of coconut water. Not so fast, sister. Sulfites are one of the most misunderstood components in wine, and contrary to what you might believe, they probably don’t have anything to do with your massive hangover. We talked to Orsi Szentkiraly, editor of the forthcoming book from National Geographic, The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, to set the record straight about the role sulfites play in winemaking and whether or not they’re actually bad for you. We also chatted with Dr. Michael Roizen, author of What to Eat When Cookbook, about a more likely reason for your wine headache, and what to do to prevent it in the future. 

What Exactly Are Sulfites, And Why Are They In My Wine?

Sulfites are sulfur-based compounds that are commonly used as preservatives in a variety of different foods. However, they’re more notoriously known for the role they play in winemaking. Szentkiraly explained that sulfites have been used in the winemaking process for centuries as an antibacterial and antioxidative tool. “Because wine barrels are so porous, effective cleaners like sulfites are needed to sanitize them properly,” she said. Sulfites are also used to prevent oxidation of grapes. In simpler terms, “just like you would squeeze lemon juice over a sliced apple to prevent browning, sulfites help grapes maintain freshness and color,” Szentkiraly explained. These naturally occurring compounds have been an essential aspect of the winemaking process for centuries and continue to demonstrate their benefits in modern vineyards today. In fact, their antioxidative properties are part of the reason so many of the wines we love are available today. The surprising thing? Szentkiraly says that “sulfites exist in almost every bottle of wine, whether you happen to notice the label on the back of the bottle or not.”

Can Sulfites Affect How I Feel?

That depends! “Sulfites will only affect you if you have severe asthma or a preexisting sensitivity to them, and if you do have a genetic sensitivity, you’ll know about it before drinking a glass of wine,” Szentkiraly says. That’s because sulfites are used in a huge variety of foods, from dried apricots to frozen french fries, and ingesting those will likely aggravate you just as much or more than the wine will. If you do have a sensitivity, consuming sulfites would give you respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath, trouble breathing and a possible asthma attack. It would NOT give you a headache. Therefore, even if you did have sensitivity to sulfites, the symptoms do not resemble those of a hangover. Thus, Szentkiraly says you cannot blame a wine headache on the existence of sulfites. “The worst thing in wine is alcohol,” she says, “not sulfites.”

The most surprising part? Szentkiraly notes that less than 1% of the population actually has a legitimate sensitivity to sulfites. Mind. Blown. 

If It’s Not The Sulfites, Why Do I Have A Headache?

If you’ve gotten to this point in the article, you probably realize that sulfites aren’t the reason for your headache. Let’s say it real loud once more for the people in the back: if, (and that’s a big if) sulfites make you feel anything at all, they certainly will not make you feel the symptoms of a hangover. But that’s not to say that other things in wine can’t exacerbate your heavy head, swollen sinuses, and stuffy nose. We spoke to Dr. Michael Roizen about the other components in wine that might contribute to a nasty morning after drinking. Dr. Roizen says “a more likely offender is the histamines in red wine, rather than the sulfites.” Histamines are an organic compound that are present in a variety of fermented products like sauerkraut and cheese, and are particularly prevalent in red wine. Roizen says that histamines affect a much larger number of people and can absolutely cause headaches and a stuffy nose. Unfortunately, he notes that the best way to prevent histamine headaches is to avoid the foods that bother you. Bummer! “Wine headaches are almost entirely due to alcohol and dehydration,” says Dr. Roizen. His hangover solution is one we know all too well and seem to forget all too easily: stopping dehydration in its tracks by following every glass of wine with a glass of water. 

The bottom line? Don’t be afraid of the “contains sulfites” label on the back of a wine bottle unless you have a legitimate preexisting condition. If you notice that a certain bottle of wine bothers you more than another, just pop it back on the shelf and follow Dr. Roizen’s advice: more water, less hangover. 

Images: Kelsey Knight / Unsplash

Laura Denby
Laura Denby
Laura Denby is a NY based food & wine writer who loves to eat and drink like it's her job. You can find her on the couch with her dog, a glass of pinot noir and the latest episode of Dateline.