What gives you a wine hangover? It’s probably not the sulfites

What gives you a wine hangover? It’s probably not the sulfites

No matter what type of reaction we’re talking about, other contributing factors make the anatomy of a hangover a complicated topic.

By Christine Sismondo 

Around and after the holidays, all the theories about how to avoid a hangover come out to play. Besides not drinking alcohol, of course.

Some people avoid sugary cocktails. Others swear hangovers are the result of mixing drinks, especially if you do the mixing in the wrong order (beer before liquor, never sicker.) And, when it comes to wine, it’s common to hear people say they have to stick to white since they get headaches from the sulfites in red.

And that misconception is near the top of nearly every wine pro’s list of pet peeves. Although it’s true that some people have sulfite sensitivity, it’s a fairly uncommon problem.

“Not only do most whites have more added sulfites than most reds, it’s a misconception that headaches come from sulfites at all,” says Robert Stelmachuk, wine director at Vancouver’s Mott 32. “I can’t recall the exact numbers, but, on average, there are more sulfites in a bag of dried apricots than in an entire case of wine.”

Sulfites are a naturally occurring substance that are also used as a preservative in a lot of common foods. A good rule of thumb is that, if you can eat dried fruit and not get a headache, the sulfites aren’t the problem. The histamines, however, might well be the culprit.

“In terms of research, we don’t have really strong evidence about, say, blood work that shows higher histamine levels after drinking alcohol,” explains Dr. Erika Lee, clinical immunologist and allergist and lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine. “But biologically and chemically speaking, that’s what we suspect.”

What makes it complicated, though, is that the alcohol-histamine relationship doesn’t always play out the same way.

“There are several possible mechanisms, because wine, itself, can contain histamines,” says Lee. “But alcohol can also cause allergy cells, also called mast cells, to release histamine, because our body actually endogenously produces histamine so it could be either of these two things at play.”

“A third possible mechanism, interestingly, is that alcohol can also inhibit the enzyme that metabolizes histamine,” she adds. No matter what type of histamine reaction we’re talking about, other contributing factors make the anatomy of a hangover an even more complicated topic.

“The contemporary perspective is that hangovers are multifactorial,” says James MacKillop, Peter Boris Chair for Addictions Research at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and McMaster University.

“And some of the factors are that alcohol is a diuretic so it leads to dehydration, and it interferes with sleep, which is part of why people feel tired when they’re hungover. It also interferes with healthy eating, since, when they’re drinking, people often fail to eat the healthiest things at the healthiest times, so nutrition is a part of it.”

He notes, too, that some suspect congeners (byproducts of fermentation and distillation that are the source of much of the aroma and taste in spirits) are a factor in hangovers. Red wine tends to have more congeners than others. And when it comes to spirits, speaking in broad strokes, spirits made in “pot stills” have more congeners. Spirits that have undergone multiple distillations have fewer.

When it comes to wine, the yeast also plays a role in the level of histamines, so there are several winemakers playing around with different strains to make lower-histamine wines. Other wines already have lower histamine levels and don’t need to be tweaked.

“Histamine-wise, if you look at sparkling wine, whites and rosés, you’re going to have lower histamine levels than reds,” explains Stelmachuk, who turned to social media during the pandemic so he could keep educating the public about topics like histamines and sulfites. “And by white, I’m talking about the ones that are not spending time in oak.”

And when it comes to reds, there’s a wide variation of histamine levels, depending on the grape varietal and method of aging.

“A really good category is entry-level Beaujolais wine, which is often low in histamines,” he says, “Once you get into the really popular reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Shiraz, these are all usually higher in both histamine levels and alcohol.”
Of course, you don’t have to drink the whole bottle.

“The best strategy for avoiding a hangover is to try to not overconsume,” says MacKillop, who is also a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences. “But, in addition, you can also try to make sure that you stay hydrated by alternating a glass of water with every alcoholic beverage, think about what you eat while you’re drinking, then try to make sure you’re able to get a decent night’s sleep.”

And if sometime over the holiday season, despite all your best efforts, you still wind up with a hangover, just remember — it’s not the poor sulfites that are to blame. They’ve taken more than their fair share over the years.

Visit us at GoldenGateWineCellars.com!
As always, don't hesitate to call us at 415-337-4083 or email frank@goldengatewinecellars.com for selection advice or assistance!