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Red Wines Can Be a Headache

Blame It on A Flavanol

Red wines can cause a headache.

By John Salak –

Just in time for the holidays comes some sobering news. Research has uncovered why red wine—even the smallest nip—can give some people a headache. Perhaps the only good news served up by this new study is that cheaper red wine may not cause the same head-rocking problems.  

Researchers at the University of California, Davis sought to uncork this dilemma (pun intended) in the face of the curious reports that some of those who suffer from red wine headaches don’t seem to be bothered by other alcohol. They discovered that a flavanol found naturally in wine may be the reason. It apparently interferes with the proper metabolism of alcohol, which then leads to headaches.

The flavanol in question is quercetin. It is naturally present in all kinds of fruits and vegetables, including grapes, and is generally considered a healthy antioxidant. It is even readily available in supplement form. The problems occur when it is mixed with alcohol. 

“When it gets in your bloodstream, your body converts it to a different form called quercetin glucuronide,” reported wine chemist and corresponding author Andrew Waterhouse, professor emeritus at UC Davis. “In that form, it blocks the metabolism of alcohol.”

When that happens, people are at risk of accumulating the toxin acetaldehyde, added lead author Apramita Devi, postdoctoral researcher at the university. 

“Acetaldehyde is a well-known toxin, irritant and inflammatory substance,” he added. “Researchers know that high levels of acetaldehyde can cause facial flushing, headache and nausea.”

The researchers noted that disulfiram, a medication prescribed to alcoholics to prevent them from drinking, causes these same symptoms.

“We postulate that when susceptible people consume wine with even modest amounts of quercetin, they develop headaches, particularly if they have a preexisting migraine or another primary headache condition,” noted co-author Morris Levin, professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “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.”

Making matters more complicated is that not all red wines are created equal when it comes to quercetin. Those wines exposed to exceptionally high levels of sunlight are likely to have extremely high levels of headache-inducing flavanol.  

“If you grow grapes with the clusters exposed, such as they do in Napa Valley for their cabernets, you get much higher levels of quercetin. In some cases, it can be four to five times higher,” Waterhouse said.

Quercetin levels can also differ depending on how the wine is made, including skin contact during fermentation, fining processes and aging.

For all their work, the researchers acknowledge that there are still many unknowns regarding red wine headaches, including why some people seem more susceptible to them than others. This problem comes at the worst time as the holidays—the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s – mark the height of the social drinking season. 

This five-week holiday period, in fact, accounts for about 25 percent of annual wine and distilled spirits sales, according to American Addiction Centers. Not surprisingly then that enormous amounts of red wine will be purchased and consumed during this time.

All hope isn’t lost, however, for those who enjoy red wine but may be susceptible to associated headaches. The UC Davis researchers suggest an alternative and probably more cost-efficient approach to avoid problems: buy cheaper red wines—or switch to white wines. They both have lower flavanol content, which reduces the risks of knocking into a headache.  





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