Red wine drinkers beware – study shows why

Woman with a red wine hangover

‘I like red wine, but it doesn’t like me.’ How many times have you heard that? And how many times have you wondered what this person was talking about?

Well, guess what? The joke’s on you, because people who enjoy alcohol but get knocked around by a glass or three of red wine are not bonkers.

A US study claims that the consumption of red wine induces headaches in some people who can drink other alcoholic beverages without suffering any side-effects.

The study, from the University of California, does not make for easy reading, but, in essence, it says that flavanols – found naturally in numerous vegetables as well as in several types of berries, tea and cocoa – are also present in the grapes used for red wine.

What causes the headaches?

The flavanol in red wine grapes is called quercetin and that is what researchers now believe produces headaches in some people.

Quercetin is also a supplement available over the counter. It can supposedly reduce swelling, kill cancer cells, control blood sugar and help prevent heart disease.

While it appears that none of those things have been confirmed in any studies, neither have they been debunked. So how can quercetin also now be said to cause headaches?

Dr Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist and professor emeritus at the University of California and co-author of the latest report, says that when quercetin gets in your bloodstream, your body converts it to a different form called quercetin glucuronide, which prevents the body from breaking down alcohol.

In this form, he says, it “blocks the metabolism of alcohol. This leads to an accumulation of toxic acetaldehyde, resulting in headaches.”

Who’s susceptible?

The findings state that, while further studies on humans are needed to confirm this hypothesis, some people are clearly more susceptible to red wine headaches than others.

Professor Morris Levin, director of the Headache Centre at the University of California, says the report is finally helping to explain the millennia-old mystery of why some people can’t drink red wine.

“We postulate that when susceptible people consume wine with even modest amounts of quercetin, they develop headaches, particularly if they have a pre-existing migraine or another primary headache condition.”

So now you can add quercetin to things such as sulphites, tannins and histamines, which are all blamed for causing headaches after drinking red wine.

To show how vexing this question can be, a study released some years ago confirmed that histamines cause wine intolerance and this intolerance can result in sneezing, flushes, headaches, diarrhoea, itchiness and shortness of breath. 

Wine experts also agree that wines strong in tannins can cause headaches, while sulphites in wine have, for a long time, been linked to headaches.

It’s all very puzzling and enough to give you a headache.

Does moderate drinking of red wine – or white wine – give you a headache? Has that changed over the years? Share your experience in the comments section below.

Also read: Can a glass of wine a day protect your heart?

Written by Steve Perkin

Steve Perkin had a long and distinguished career as a journalist, covering sport and general news and writing daily columns for The Age and the Herald Sun. He's written three books and is a regular YourLifeChoices contributor.

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