So THAT’S Why Red Wine Gives Some People A Headache

New research explains why your head might throb even after a single glass.
A new study suggests a component of red wine may be the reason it causes head pain.
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A new study suggests a component of red wine may be the reason it causes head pain.

It’s no secret that alcohol can cause you to wake up with a brutal, throbbing headache but red wine, in particular, is known for making certain people’s heads ache within a few hours. Scientists may have uncovered why even a small glass of cabernet can have this effect.

According to a new study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, red wine contains quercetin, a flavanol naturally found in grapes, that may impair how the body metabolizes alcohol and cause a toxin called acetaldehyde to build up in the body. This can trigger a mix of uncomfortable symptoms, including nausea, flushing, and ― you guessed it ― a headache.

Per the report, there’s a lot of variability in the amount of quercetin found in different types of red wines. It’s also unclear why these red wine headaches only affect certain individuals.

Quercetin is a healthy antioxidant, according to the researchers, but when it’s consumed alongside alcohol, it can start to cause issues. Once quercetin is in the body, it is converted into a liver metabolite called quercetin glucuronide. When alcohol is also being consumed, quercetin glucuronide may cause levels of acetaldehyde, a substance that is irritating and inflammatory, to increase in the body.

“This is a problem because acetaldehyde is somewhat toxic and several symptoms occur, including flushing, headaches and other symptoms,” says corresponding author Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist and professor emeritus with the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the Univeristy of California, Davis.

Prior evidence shows that high amounts of acetaldehyde is linked to headache, flushing, rapid heartbeat and nausea. For some people, these headaches can occur in 30 minutes to three hours after even a small glass of wine.

Past research has suggested that other compounds, like sulphites, phenolic flavonoids or tannins, might be the reason wine drinkers develop headaches. However, other foods high in phenolic compounds, including flavonoids, don’t have this effect.

This inconsistency has led scientists to question whether something else is going on. This study suggests that quercetin may actually be the culprit — at least when it comes to red wines.

It's unclear why some people experience red wine headaches over others.
Nikada via Getty Images
It's unclear why some people experience red wine headaches over others.

Who is prone to red wine headaches, and how can you avoid them?

According to the researchers, it’s unclear why certain individuals are more prone to red wine headaches. For example, they may be more sensitive to acetaldehyde, or their bodies might metabolize quercetin differently.

“It might be that they have an underlying predisposition for having migraine, which then becomes triggered by increased acetaldehyde,” Levin said.

Future studies will need to investigate who is most at risk. It’s “a good question,” Waterhouse noted, “but one that will take some time to answer.”

The flavanol levels also vary significantly in different types of red wines and largely depend on how the grapes are grown. Quercetin increases when grapes are exposed to sunlight, which is why cabernets produced from grapes grown in the Napa Valley, for example, tend to have dramatically higher levels of quercetin. In fact, grapes that are exposed to the sun can have four to eight times as much quercetin compared to grapes that are grown in shaded environments, past data shows. Other factors, including the aging and fermentation processes, can also influence how much quercetin is in grapes.

According to Waterhouse, less expensive red wines generally contain less quercetin since the grapes used are typically exposed to less sunlight. That said, Levin believes there are likely some high-quality reds that might still be safe. This can be good or bad news, depending on how you look at it.

“I have been getting quite a few emails from readers, and one confirmed that she can drink less expensive red wines, but the good stuff ends up, very sadly, as cooking wine for her,” Waterhouse said.

Levin said that finding a red wine that won’t trigger a headache may take some experimentation. In his experience, many people have had better luck with Pinot Noir and Syrah wines.

Alcohol content could also increase the risk of a headache in those who are prone to headaches, so it may be worth avoiding high-alcohol wines like the very high-octane cabernets, Levin said. You can opt for a white wine, as they contain smaller amounts of quercetin, Waterhouse suggested.

Hopefully, one day, we’ll have a test that can quickly measure the amount of quercetin in any given bottle of wine, but we’re not there yet. For now, your best bet is to monitor how your body reacts to different types of red wine — and, when in doubt, go for the cheap bottle of Syrah. Your head (and wallet) will thank you.

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