A glass of wine after a long day may be a great way to unwind. In some people, though, drinking this alcoholic beverage can cause a headache and facial flush after. If you have been that person who has never been able to tolerate red wine, then recent studies report that quercetin, a type of polyphenol in red wine, could be the culprit. Keep reading to learn more about the study and what it concludes. If you love red wine but just can’t handle the headaches, we also have tips on enjoying your favorite drink without struggling with the after-effects.
Did You Know?
Our genes play a big role in how we respond to alcohol. Two key enzymes are involved in breaking down the alcohol we consume. A genetic deficiency in either of those enzymes can result in unpleasant side effects like red flush, nausea, vomiting, hangovers, or even severe toxicity! Learn more.
According to a 2021 report, the total wine sales in the United States in 2021 was $78.4 billion.
This number is only projected to increase in the coming years.
Multiple studies suggest that drinking moderate amounts of wine may help decrease the overall mortality rate, rate of cardiovascular diseases, and premature aging.
Red wine, especially, has higher amounts of antioxidants, essential vitamins, and minerals.
Unfortunately, not all people react well to red wine.
In some, consuming even small amounts of red wine can lead to headaches.
The Science Behind Headaches After Drinking
Red wine contains high amounts of certain polyphenols (pigments naturally found in plant-based foods) like tannin and quercetin.
Alcohol is also a rich source of histamines, chemicals that cause allergic symptoms in the body.
For a while now, researchers have been blaming histamines for causing headaches.
Histamine affects the hypothalamic activity in the brain, triggering migraines or contributing to their severity.
However, people who developed headaches after consuming red wine were usually fine with other types of alcohol.
So, the interest has now turned to the polyphenols in red wine.
Once you consume alcohol, the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) in the liver breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde and other compounds.
Now, another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), rapidly converts acetaldehyde into acetate.
Acetaldehyde is an active metabolite affecting the body and brain, causing various toxic, behavioral, and pharmacological effects.
Recent studies suggest that quercetin may affect the functioning of the aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) protein.
Quercetin can slow the conversion of acetaldehyde into acetate and, as a result, increase acetaldehyde levels in the body.
One of the side effects of high acetaldehyde levels could be headaches.
Study: Quercetin In Red Wine Maybe The Reason Behind Headache After Drinking
A 2023 study published in the open-access Scientific Reports journal proposed a new hypothesis on why red wine causes headaches in certain individuals.
This was not a human-subject testing study.
The researchers picked up chosen samples of red wine for analysis.
HPLC-grade phenolics were procured from Lifescience and pharmaceutical companies in the United States.
The researchers also procured Human recombinant ALDH2 enzyme and other reagents for the study.
The researchers used QuantiChrom™ aldehyde dehydrogenase inhibitor screening kits to measure how different phenolic compounds inhibited ALDH2.
This kit converted acetaldehyde in the red wine into acetic acid and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH).
The NADH interacted with a formazan agent, creating a colored substance.
The amount of colored substance absorbed was directly proportional to the enzyme activity, helping researchers understand the relationship between quercetin and the rate of ALDH2 inhibition.
The study observed the effects of different wine phenolics on the rate of ALDH2 inhibition.
The following were the results observed.
|Compounds (20 μM)
|ALDH2 inhibition (%)
|78.69 ± 1.21
|27.69 ± 0.61
|25.83 ± 1.31
|25.71 ± 2.19
|21.78 ± 1.56
|21.46 ± 1.90
|20.61 ± 0.79
|19.58 ± 0.32d
|18.53 ± 0.06
|17.56 ± 1.84
|15.62 ± 0.78
|14.77 ± 0.39
|0.34 ± 0.12
According to the study, quercetin glucuronide, one of quercetin’s liver metabolites, showed the highest levels of ALDH2 inhibition.
The lowest inhibition was by epicatechin, a flavanol that belonged to the catechin family.
Limitations and Future Directions
The primary limitation of the study was that it wasn’t human-tested since the study used a standard red wine sample for analysis.
However, there are different kinds of red wines in the world, each with varied quercetin levels. A larger sample could have led to more accurate results.
In human test subjects, specific gene polymorphisms could also affect acetaldehyde metabolism, which wasn’t considered in this study.
This is still a hypothesis, and human studies in the future may be able to verify this more precisely.
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Are Some People More Susceptible Headache After Drinking Red Wine Than Others?
Thanks to genetic abnormalities, some people’s bodies may be unable to break down acetaldehyde effectively.
This can result in acetaldehyde buildup over time. Red wine contains much higher levels of quercetin.
As a result, drinking even small quantities of red wine can lead to excess acetaldehyde accumulation, leading to headaches.
For instance, studies report that 40% of Asians are born with a dysfunctional gene that does not produce enough ALDH enzyme to convert acetaldehyde into acetate.
In those consuming red wine in excess, quercetin may lead to severe ALDH2 inhibition over time, causing excess acetaldehyde circulation and headaches.
People with existing migraines may also be more susceptible to headaches when consuming red wine.
Tips To Minimize Headache After Drinking Wine
- If red wine regularly leaves you with a headache, it would be better to stay away from this type of alcohol.
- White wine may be a safer choice for some people since it contains relatively low levels of quercetin.
- Have a glass of water before and after drinking one glass of red wine. This may help avoid dehydration-caused headaches.
- Some kinds of red wines have lower amounts of polyphenols. Choosing them may minimize headaches.
Summary: Headache After Drinking Wine?
- Red wine is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages globally.
- In some individuals, drinking even very low quantities of red wine may lead to headaches.
- The body breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde and other compounds. The ALDH enzyme rapidly converts acetaldehyde into acetate.
- Acetaldehyde is an active component that causes headaches, facial flushes, nausea, faster heart rates, and behavioral changes associated with alcohol consumption.
- Quercetin, a polyphenol present in abundance in red wine, affects acetaldehyde metabolism in the body. Excess quercetin may lead to dysfunction of the ALDH enzyme, increase of acetaldehyde, and increase the chance of headaches.
- A 2023 study hypothesizes that certain metabolites of quercetin may lead to higher rates of ALDH inhibition, suggesting quercetin in red wine may be the cause of headaches. Further human studies are needed to confirm the hypothesis.
- Cutting back on red wine, keeping the body hydrated with water, and choosing the right type of wine may all help minimize headaches after drinking wine.