In the midst of clinking glasses and the satisfaction of that first sip of red wine, a subtle menace looms for some — the notorious wine headache.
Despite ongoing speculation about the source of the sudden headache that can follow a single glass of red wine, scientists may have helped uncork the mystery behind this phenomenon.
In a preliminary peer-reviewed study, published Monday in Scientific Reports researchers at the University of California looked into why the “red wine headache” happens to people who normally don’t suffer from them when drinking other types of alcohol. They noted that this type of headache differs from the typical “hangover,” which typically manifests five to 12 hours after consuming alcohol.
“Red wine headache does not require excessive amounts of wine as a trigger. In most cases, the headache is induced in 30 minutes to three hours after drinking only one or two glasses of wine,” the authors of the study stated.
While various components of wine, including sulfites, histamine and tannins, have been suggested as potential causes of wine headaches, no specific chemical makeup has been definitively identified as the primary trigger, the researchers said.
In order to find this out, the researchers ran tests on more than a dozen compounds in red wine and zeroed in down to one potential culprit.
It’s called quercetin, an antioxidant that is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, including grapes. While it is generally regarded as a healthy antioxidant and is available in supplement form, its interaction with alcohol during metabolism can pose issues, the study said.
“When it gets in your bloodstream, your body converts it to a different form called quercetin glucuronide,” Andrew Waterhouse, co-author and professor in viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, said in a Monday press release. “In that form, it blocks the metabolism of alcohol.”
It can end up accumulating the toxin acetaldehyde, which at high levels can cause facial flushing, headache and nausea, the researchers said.
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When susceptible people consume wine with even modest amounts of quercetin, they develop headaches, particularly if they have pre-existing migraines, according to the study. The researchers added it’s still unclear why some people seem more susceptible.
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And the levels of quercetin can vary dramatically in red wine.
“Quercetin is produced by the grapes in response to sunlight,” Waterhouse said. “If you grow grapes with the clusters exposed, such as they do in the Napa Valley for their cabernets, you get much higher levels of quercetin. In some cases, it can be four to five times higher.”
Quercetin levels can also vary based on the winemaking process, influenced by factors such as skin contact during fermentation, fining processes and aging, the study stated.
Although the researchers hypothesize that quercetin may cause red wine headaches, past studies have shown that the compound may protect against cancer and other diseases.
For example, a 2017 study published in Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine said quercetin may help prevent alcohol-induced liver injury and inhibit the proliferation of prostate cancer cells.
Other studies have suggested that red wines with more tannins may trigger migraine attacks.
Because the research published Monday in Scientific Reports was only a preliminary study, the authors said they hope to move their hypothesis into clinical trials. The end goal is to help people avoid red wine headaches in the future.
“We think we are finally on the right track toward explaining this millennia-old mystery,” said co-author Morris Levin, professor of neurology and director of the Headache Center at the University of California, San Francisco.
“The next step is to test it scientifically on people who develop these headaches, so stay tuned.”
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