Are wine purifiers the remedy for the common wine hangover? We asked experts if they are worth the investment.
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3 Ullo Wine filters on different glass vessels
Credit: Ullo Wine

"No headache and my wine taste better!" says one five-star review on Amazon about Ullo wine purifiers. Another user who reviewed PureWine raves, "This product is awesome. Swish it in your wine, and it doesn't affect the taste of the wine at all. Results: Flat-out works. No headaches!"

In sharp contrast, you can find some reviews of wine purifiers stating that the device "does nothing" and "it made very little difference and altered the taste of most of the wines."

Would putting your wine through a purifier help remove impurities, or is this just another gadget with a marketing gimmick? We delved into the science behind alcohol-induced headaches and spoke with some wine experts for their insight.

What are wine purifiers supposed to do?

Wine purifier brands attest that their products can filter sulfites, a byproduct resulting from wine fermentation, which is also thought to contribute to wine's bitterness. Sulfites can also be added to wine to prevent browning, reduce the growth of bacteria, wild yeasts and molds, and to help give wine a longer shelf life.

Wine purifier makers claim that their products can filter out impurities, mainly sulfites, to make the wine more "clean."

Other brands say they want to create a more pleasant drinking experience by filtering out substances to which some drinkers may have sensitivities. In addition to sulfites, some brands suggest that some consumers may be sensitive to histamine, a naturally present compound in fermented and aged foods, including wine. 

While no brand proclaims that their wine purifiers prevent headaches, they imply that using their products would reduce the chances of unpleasant symptoms that come with drinking wine. 

The science behind alcohol-related headaches

From a science standpoint, the cause-and-effect relationship between drinking wine and having a headache later is complex. Thinking that the solution to preventing what may be a wine-induced headache is a simple sulfite-purification (by filtering before drinking) is too, well, simple.

Research suggests that alcohol in general may trigger inflammation in a particular part of the brain and the blood vessels surrounding the membranes that protect the brain. This inflammation manifests as painful headaches.

Among the alcohol varieties, red wine triggers more headaches than other alcoholic drinks, which could be due to the compounds present in red wine, including but not limited to sulfites. Histamines as well as flavonoids may also contribute to headaches.

Flavonoids, such as anthocyanins and tannins, are antioxidants and pigments in red wine that give it color, flavor and mouthfeel. Research notes that flavonoids might block an enzyme, phenol sulfotransferase (PST), in the body. As a result, the body cannot rid itself of certain substances in alcohol that pass from the bloodstream to the brain, leading to headaches. 

The same study also points out that people who have low PST enzyme activity in their blood may have a higher chance of experiencing red-wine-induced headaches. 

When it comes to histamines, they're present in the body when the immune system suspects a potential allergen. Histamines are also naturally found in foods, and have higher concentrations in fermented and aged foods, such as aged cheese, sauerkraut and red wine. Most people can tolerate them, however, a small percentage of people are intolerant. In this case, histamine may build up in the body, putting these individuals at a greater risk of experiencing headaches, due to the immune system's response.

Now, on to sulfites. Since sulfites are naturally in wine and added as an additive, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau requires winemakers to declare sulfites on the label when there are more than 10 or more parts per million sulfites present. This statement is meant to inform consumers who may be allergic to sulfites and have asthma, as they may also be sensitive to sulfites. 

Science suggests that people with lower PST enzyme activity levels and underlying sensitivities to histamines and sulfites may be at a greater risk of having alcohol-induced headaches. However, current evidence has not proven that histamines and sulfites can cause alcohol-related headaches if you do not have an intolerance to them.

What the experts say

The relationship between compounds present in wine and wine-induced headaches remains debatable. 

A 2019 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated the relationship between sulfites and wine-induced headaches. This study involved 80 people and found that the concentration of sulfites present in wine may be linked to headaches. 

However, James Fairbrother, cellar manager at Ardesia Wine Bar in New York City, argues, "There are fewer sulfites in wine than [in] most juices and dried fruits."

And Fairbrother's comment is supported by research that questions how sulfites in wine could trigger headaches when sulfites are present in typical everyday food, yet they do not induce headaches.

For example, dried fruits can contain up to 1,000 ppm of sulfites per serving, whereas red and white wine only have about 160 ppm and 210 ppm, respectively.

More importantly, "Wine purifiers are not the solution to all your headaches," says sommelier Bertil Jean-Chronberg, owner of Bonde Fine Wines in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He suggests that there are simple ways to reduce headaches without using a filter, such as choosing wines with the lowest possible levels of alcohol and residual sugar. 

Residual sugar refers to the natural sugar from the grapes that remains in the wine after the alcohol fermentation process is complete. A "dry" wine typically contains 10 grams per liter of residual sugar by industry standards. The sweetness of the wine becomes noticeable when it has 35 grams or more residual sugar per liter.

Jean-Chronberg adds, "The lower the alcohol content of the wine, the lower the chance of a residual sugar level."

Lastly, while experiencing dehydration is not a red-wine-specific phenomenon, those who drink too much alcohol may have hangover headaches, which occur within 5 to 12 hours of consumption. The reason is that alcohol is a diuretic, making one urinate more and leading to mild dehydration, thirst and tiredness.

Bottom line

You may benefit from using wine purifiers to reduce headaches triggered by alcohol if you have been diagnosed with a histamine and/or sulfite sensitivity or allergy by your doctor. Otherwise, their effectiveness remains subjective. The only surefire way to avoid alcohol-induced headaches is to abstain from alcohol, and that's a personal choice for which a filter is not required.