The grape depression: The cause of red wine headaches revealed

Nov 25, 2023
The cause of red wine headaches has been revealed. Source: Getty Images

Australia is a major exporter of wine around the world and whatever wine we don’t ship overseas, we drink! With many great places for growing grapes, it’s no wonder that this country is full of wine connoisseurs looking for the best drop.

Most people have (unfortunately) had to experience the consequences of heavy drinking at some point. However, there is a type of alcohol that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to negative effects.

Red wine is widely known to cause swift and very painful headaches in some people after only a glass or two. But is there a scientific reason why this happens? Recent research from the University of California may have just caught the culprit red-handed.

Over the years, there have been a fair few studies into what exactly is inside red wine that causes these headaches.

The recent study put forward a specific phenolic flavonoid, quercetin, as the hypothesised cause of wine headaches. Phenolic flavonoids are compounds that are derived from grape seeds and skin and contribute to colour, taste and mouthfeel of red wine.

Levels of flavonoids can be ten times higher in red wines compared to white wine. Quercetin in particular is found almost exclusively in red wine. Red wines also have differing levels of quercetin depending on the type.

Grapes naturally produce large levels of quercetin when exposed to sunlight. This means certain types of red wine, such as Napa Valley cabernets, can have five times more quercetin than other reds due to how the grapes are grown. The winemaking process also has an effect on quercetin levels.

When someone drinks alcohol, the liver metabolises alcohol in a two-step process. Firstly, alcohol (ethanol) is converted into acetaldehyde by enzymes. Acetaldehyde then converts to acetate.

Large concentrations of acetaldehyde cause some hangover symptoms, including headaches, when the body is not able to quickly convert it all into acetate. Usually, someone needs to drink a large amount for this to happen.

The researchers in the study hypothesised that quercetin can block the action of certain liver enzymes, preventing them from easily converting acetaldehyde to acetate. This causes a large buildup of acetaldehyde in the body, creating headaches even after only a glass or two of wine.

It’s not known why certain people are more susceptible quite yet. However, those who suffer from migraines reported that they experienced wine headaches more often than the rest of the population.

A large-scale clinical trial still needs to be conducted to determine the effects of differing quercetin levels. In the meantime, those who enjoy a tipple but unfortunately experience headaches can rest assured that there’s some hope on the horizon.

The researcher hopes to use findings from the next study to advise people on what types of wine to avoid and help winemakers determine how to reduce quercetin levels for everyone’s enjoyment.


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