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Splitting The Truth About Red Wine Headaches

Splitting The Truth About Red Wine Headaches

We all enjoy pairing red wine with delicious food and good fun but for some of us, the pairing is far from being as enjoyable. Drinking red wine, even in small amounts can cause splitting headaches. I personally experience those headaches from time to time, but not always. So what creates those red wine headaches? Is it the wine varietal? Or the alcohol content? Is it our state of health at the moment? And is there a cure or a hack to prevent them? Let’s ponder!

Discover the truth about red wine headaches, the causes behind them, and how to prevent them with these helpful insights and tips.

What In Red Wine Causes Headaches?

Sulfite In WineMy youngest son being a student at UC Davis, I signed up for their newsletter. A recent wine study caught my attention. Scientists from the UC Davis university, home of the Mondavi Center, may have solved the mystery of red wine headaches. A compound called Quercetin is to blame. It’s a pigment that comes from grape skins and gives red wine its signature color. Quercetin blocks an important enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase, which your liver uses to break down or metabolize alcohol. Without this enzyme, a toxic substance called acetaldehyde, can build up in your bloodstream causing headaches and nausea within minutes of your first sip. Scientists have yet to understand why some people are more vulnerable to Quercetin-induced headaches than others, but they’re planning clinical trials to learn more.

The Culprit: Quercetin

This flavanol is called quercetin, and it is naturally present in all kinds of fruits and vegetables, including grapes. It’s considered a healthy antioxidant and is even available in supplement form. But when metabolized with alcohol, it can be problematic.”

The Symptoms: Flushing, Headache, And Nausea

As a result, an irritant and inflammatory toxin Acetaldehyde builds up and leads to facial flushing, headache, and in some cases nausea. Certain people are more prone to this condition, like the East Asian population.

Sunlight Increases Flavanol In Grapes

The Effect Of Sunlights On GrapesLevels of this flavanol can vary dramatically in red wine. Quercetin is produced by the grapes under sunlight exposure. The more the clusters are exposed, the higher levels of quercetin they produce. In some cases, it can be four to five times higher. And to make matters worse, levels of quercetin can also change depending on the winemaking process. If the skins are left in the wine during fermentation, the quercetin levels can be even greater.

Does Anything Else Create Those Headaches?

While the study was specifically geared around the flavanol, we often hear about other causes for red wine headaches… Like sulfites, which is another component found in wines. But is that even true?

Sulfites In Wine

Why Are Sulfites Often Blamed?

Sulfites often get blamed for causing wine headaches, but that’s a total myth. Sulfites are present in many foods we consume on a regular basis. Take our beloved French fries for example, they have 40 times the amount of sulfites over the average content of sulfites in wine. Furthermore, dried fruits have 80 times the amount of sulfites compared to a dry red. I’m no scientist but that myth has been nipped in the bud!

If Sulfites Aren’t To Blame, What Is?

In addition to the scientifically proven results from the researchers of UC Davis, there are four other possible reasons for red wine headaches, starting with histamines. Histamines are a chemical compound found in many foods, including wine. They’re responsible for how you feel after eating certain foods, especially if you have a histamine intolerance. Second on the list is added sugar and chemicals in cheaper wines. Dehydration is another big inhibitor of wine headaches, along with overconsumption. I’m in my 50’s and I sure can’t drink as much as I used to. I favor better quality wines, mixed in with lots of water. To be clear, I don’t actually mix water into my wine… I’m 51 years old, not 90!

What Are The Solutions?

Until scientists figure out a way to make our red wine drinking habits less risky of a potential headache, here is what we know…

  • Take an antihistamine to block the unpleasant side effects of histamine.
  • Drink less AND better wines to mitigate the many discomforts of cheap wines.
  • Prior to and while enjoying wine, make sure to drink plenty of water, simultaneously. I personally use a 1:1 ratio of wine and water.

But that’s not all! There are three additional tips worth mentioning.

Does Aerating The Wine Prevent Wine Headaches?

Wine Facts – DecanterWhile there has been no conclusive research on the subject, many people will tell you it does, and I am one of them. I do it systematically, partially because there is no reason not to. Whether it does reduce the risk of a headache or not, the wine tastes so much better after it’s had a chance to breathe. My rule of thumb is 30 minutes in the bottle, 10 minutes in the glass. And if you’re in a hurry, use an aerating device or a decanter to speed up the process.

Red Wine Headaches… Should We Drink Whites Instead?

Red Or White Wine For Dinner? Which One Is Best?In that same wine study from the University of California in Davis, they’ve discovered that the total flavonol content in white wines is about ten-fold lower than the red wines. During the production of white wine, the grapes are pressed and the juice is separated from the skin. The fermentation happens in stainless steel casks without the presence of the skin, which reduces the content of quercetin. So if you get red wine headaches, reach for the white wine instead which typically has much less of this compound.

What About Organic Wines?

Many winemakers have adopted organic and biodynamic farming methods, which not only help to preserve the health of the soil and the environment but also result in natural wines with more complex and nuanced flavors. A 2013 study by the University of Rome’s Clinical Nutrition concluded that drinking natural wine lowered the amount of acetaldehyde in the blood, allowing the liver to flush out toxins at a faster rate. If true, natural wine’s properties could slow down intoxication and reduce the risk of wine headaches or bad hangover.

I’ve written many articles about sustainability practices in the wine industry. Those global efforts make us feel better about our overall impact on the planet. We only have the one, so let’s do everything we can to make sure we can keep it for a little longer. I wholeheartedly support those practices and always favor sustainable over conventional wineries. That’s just a personal choice.

So Is There A Cure For Wine Headaches?

Other than a few widespread, anecdotal hacks aforementioned in this article, the short answer is no. However, scientists think they are finally on the right track toward explaining this ancient mystery. The next step will be to test it scientifically on people who develop these headaches. Scientists will compare red wines that contain a lot of quercetin with those that have very little to test their theory about red wine headaches on people. It’s still unclear why some people seem more susceptible than others. However if their hypothesis pans out, they will have the tools to start addressing these important questions. Clinical trials take time but there’s is hope!

So there you have it. I’m afraid the cure for red wine headaches will have to wait a little longer. In the meantime, try the solutions I mentioned and say cheers to red wine without the headaches!

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7 Comments

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  3. Steve J

    Putting quercetin into perspective, it’s an important supplement to consider (along with your morning dose of vitamins and supplements) as a way of boosting your immune system and to avoid respiratory infections and colds. And that in and of itself will not give you headaches. Also, if you do have headaches associated with red wine, consider the antihistamine like Claritin. It may just help your issues. Disclaimer: I’m just a guy who likes wine and am not a doctor. So don’t sue me if it doesn’t work. 😎

  4. Elizabeth

    Great read Laurent! Definitely agree, high quality wine, lots of water, and moderation. I have actually found a glass of wine gets rid of the headache for me… Although more than two glasses can certainly bring on a “head against a board” kind of morning!

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