Unraveling the Mystery: Why Red Wine Causes Headaches in Some People

by Klaus Müller
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Wine-Induced Headaches

Exploring the Enigma: Why Some Individuals Experience Headaches After Consuming Red Wine

A recent investigation conducted at UC Davis delves into the intriguing phenomenon of headaches triggered by the consumption of red wine. This study suggests that quercetin, a flavanol naturally occurring in red wine, may be responsible for these headaches by disrupting the metabolism of alcohol and leading to the accumulation of toxins in the body. Further research is in the pipeline to unravel why certain individuals are more susceptible to these wine-induced headaches.

Notably, not everyone enjoys an untroubled experience after savoring red wine, and it appears that a specific flavanol may be the instigator behind this discomfort.

While a glass of red wine can complement an upcoming Thanksgiving feast splendidly, it can also, for some, usher in a throbbing headache, even with a modest intake. This “red wine headache” typically manifests within a window of 30 minutes to three hours after imbibing even a small portion of wine.

The Puzzling Culprit Behind Wine-Induced Headaches

In this recent research endeavor, scholars from the University of California, Davis, have endeavored to elucidate why this occurrence is so pronounced in certain individuals, even when they experience no such discomfort with other alcoholic beverages. The focus of their inquiry is quercetin, a flavanol present in red wines naturally and also found in various fruits and vegetables, including grapes. It is renowned for its status as a beneficial antioxidant and is even available in supplement form. However, when quercetin interacts with alcohol metabolism, it can become problematic.

As elucidated by wine chemist and corresponding author Andrew Waterhouse, who is also a professor emeritus with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, “When it gets in your bloodstream, your body converts it to a different form called quercetin glucuronide, which, in that form, obstructs the metabolism of alcohol.”

The Accumulation of Acetaldehyde Toxins and Its Effects

Consequently, individuals can accumulate the toxin acetaldehyde, as explained by lead author Apramita Devi, a postdoctoral researcher with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. Devi notes, “Acetaldehyde is a well-known toxin, irritant, and inflammatory substance, and high levels of acetaldehyde can lead to facial flushing, headache, and nausea.”

This is reminiscent of the symptoms caused by the medication disulfiram, which is prescribed to individuals grappling with alcohol addiction to deter them from drinking. The drug induces similar symptoms because it also causes an accumulation of acetaldehyde in the body, a process that would typically be counteracted by an enzyme. Intriguingly, around 40% of the East Asian population possesses an enzyme that functions less effectively, allowing acetaldehyde to build up in their systems.

Co-author Morris Levin, a professor of neurology and the director of the Headache Center at the University of California, San Francisco, postulates, “We believe that when susceptible individuals consume wine containing even modest amounts of quercetin, they develop headaches, particularly if they have a preexisting migraine or another primary headache condition. We think we are finally on the right track toward explaining this millennia-old mystery. The next step is to test it scientifically on people who develop these headaches, so stay tuned.”

The Influence of Sunlight on Quercetin Levels in Grapes

Waterhouse underscores that the levels of this flavanol can vary significantly in red wine. “Quercetin is produced by the grapes in response to sunlight,” he explains. “If you grow grapes with the clusters exposed, such as they do in the Napa Valley for their cabernets, you get much higher levels of quercetin. In some cases, it can be four to five times higher.” Additionally, quercetin levels can differ based on winemaking processes, including skin contact during fermentation, fining procedures, and aging.

Clinical Trials to Unravel the Mystery of Wine-Induced Headaches

The next phase of research involves a comparison between red wines rich in quercetin and those with minimal quantities, aiming to validate their theory regarding red wine-induced headaches in individuals. This human clinical trial, generously funded by the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, will be spearheaded by UCSF.

Researchers concede that many enigmas remain unsolved concerning the causes of red wine headaches. It remains uncertain whether individuals prone to these headaches possess enzymes that are more susceptible to quercetin inhibition or if this demographic is merely more vulnerable to acetaldehyde buildup. As Waterhouse aptly puts it, “If our hypothesis proves accurate, we will possess the means to embark on a journey to address these pertinent questions.”

Reference: “Inhibition of ALDH2 by quercetin glucuronide suggests a new hypothesis to explain red wine headaches” by Apramita Devi, Morris Levin, and Andrew L. Waterhouse, November 20, 2023, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-46203-y

This initial investigation received funding from individuals who supported the project via the 2022 Crowdfund UC Davis initiative.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Wine-Induced Headaches

Q: What causes red wine headaches?

A: Red wine headaches may be caused by the interaction of quercetin, a flavanol found in red wine, with alcohol metabolism, leading to the accumulation of the toxin acetaldehyde.

Q: Why do some people experience these headaches while others don’t?

A: The exact reason why some individuals are more susceptible to red wine headaches is not fully understood. It’s unclear whether it’s due to differences in enzyme activity or heightened sensitivity to acetaldehyde buildup.

Q: Are there factors other than quercetin that contribute to these headaches?

A: Yes, factors like sunlight exposure during grape growth and winemaking processes can influence the levels of quercetin in red wine, potentially affecting the likelihood of headaches.

Q: What are the symptoms of red wine headaches?

A: Red wine headaches can lead to symptoms such as facial flushing, headache, and nausea, which are attributed to the accumulation of acetaldehyde in the body.

Q: Is there ongoing research to better understand and address these headaches?

A: Yes, researchers are conducting clinical trials to investigate red wines with varying quercetin levels to validate their theory. Funding for such research is provided by sources like the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation.

Q: What can individuals who experience red wine headaches do to mitigate them?

A: Currently, the best approach is to avoid or limit the consumption of red wine if it consistently triggers headaches. Further insights from ongoing research may provide additional solutions in the future.

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