What makes a sumptuous holiday dinner complete?
For many people, it’s the splitting red wine headache that follows.
Medical researchers and wine lovers alike have tried for thousands of years to determine what causes some people to get a throbbing headache after drinking even a small amount of maroon-colored vino.
Theories abound: Some people blame sulfites, which are naturally present in wines and are added by some winemakers as a preservative.
But sulfites are also present in foods like fruits, especially dried, and soy sauce, as well as in white wines — but those aren’t typically linked to headaches.
Other experts point to histamines as a culprit, but that theory doesn’t seem to hold water (or wine): A study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that “there is no correlation between the histamine content of wine and wine intolerance.”
But a new study from researchers from the University of California, Davis, proposes that the real cause of red wine headaches is a flavanol known as quercetin.
Quercetin takes the rap
Quercetin is an antioxidant, which has many health benefits — it’s even sold as a supplement.
But combined with alcohol, quercetin changes into a toxic compound known as acetaldehyde that can cause some people headaches.
“When [quercetin] gets in your bloodstream, your body converts it to a different form,” wine chemist Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, professor emeritus with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, said in a news release. “In that form, it blocks the metabolism of alcohol.”
By blocking the breakdown of alcohol, the toxin acetaldehyde can quickly accumulate in the body, causing a headache within a few hours.
“Acetaldehyde is a well-known toxin, irritant and inflammatory substance,” said lead author Apramita Devi, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis. “Researchers know that high levels of acetaldehyde can cause facial flushing, headache and nausea.”
Another clue comes from the medication disulfiram, which is prescribed to alcoholics to prevent them from drinking. The drug also causes acetaldehyde to build up in the body, causing headaches and other symptoms.
“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,” said co-author Morris Levin, professor of neurology and director of the Headache Center 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,” Levin added.
Levels of quercetin can vary a lot from one red wine to the next, Waterhouse noted.
“Quercetin is produced by the grapes in response to sunlight. If you grow grapes with the clusters exposed … you get much higher levels of quercetin. In some cases, it can be four to five times higher.”
How to prevent red wine headaches
Experts have noted a few tips for avoiding a red wine headache.
Foremost among them: try switching to white wines, Champagne or other white sparkling wines.
Drinking any alcohol on an empty stomach can cause a raft of issues, including headaches, so try eating some food before you pop the cork, too.
Dehydration can also lead to headaches, so try drinking a glass of water before drinking wine, and have another glass of water between glasses of wine to stay hydrated.
Doctors sometimes suggest trying a painkiller like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, or taking an antihistamine, before drinking wine.
But some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, so avoid those if you’re driving — or if you simply want to stay awake for dessert.