Why does red wine cause such debilitating headaches? A new study may have the answer

Pouring red wine in glasses Courtesy of Plimoth Patuxet Museums
Pouring red wine in glasses Courtesy of Plimoth Patuxet Museums

Scientists may have figured out why so many people suffer from awful headaches after drinking wine, particularly red wine. Writing in Scientific Reports, researchers honed in on phenolic flavonoids, which are chemical compounds found in grapes that affect the taste, color and mouthfeel of wine.

Various types of wine contain various levels of flavonoids. Red wine, specifically, can contain 10 times the amount of flavonoids than its white counterpart, thus making the compounds a major culprit for causing immediate wine headaches.When consumed, the alcohol in wine is metabolized in the liver by enzymes to create acetate. First, the alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde. Then, acetaldehyde is converted to acetate.After running lab tests on more than a dozen compounds in red wine, researchers found that quercetin glucuronide (which is processed in the body from quercetin, a flavonol almost exclusively found in red wine) could effectively block the enzyme that converts acetaldehyde into acetate.

When the enzyme is blocked, toxic acetaldehyde builds up in the bloodstream, the researchers said. High levels of acetaldehyde, in turn, causes headaches, nausea, facial flushing and sweating. As for why some people are more prone to wine headaches than others, researchers said that information is still unclear. They are looking to conduct clinical trials soon in hopes of finding that answer.

“We think we are finally on the right track toward explaining this millennia-old mystery,” Morris Levin, the director of the Headache Center at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Guardian. “The next step is to test it scientifically on people who develop these headaches.”