Why Red Wine Causes Headaches

"Fruit of the vine and work of human hands" is the way one prayer in the Catholic Mass describes wine. Others have observed that Jesus didn't turn wine into water, but water into wine.

So, why oh why can wine – especially red wine – cause such fearsome headaches in some people?

Now, scientists led by Apramita Devi and Andrew L. Whitehouse of the Department of Viticulture & Enology at the University of California, Davis, think they have they answer: It's caused by a gene, the quercetin-e-glucurontide that inhibits an enzyme to metabolizes alcohol. Red Wine contains much higher levels of quercetin and is glycosides than white wine or other alcoholic beverages. The results is an intense headache.

About 16% of the world's population suffers from headaches every day. Headaches are a significant cause of disability: Migraine is second among the causes of disability worldwide and first among young women. Alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, spirits) are the most common dietary agents associated with headaches, with at least occasional triggering in 37% of patients.

It's known that when alcohol is consumed in too-large a quantity, a headache may result. Alcohol is metabolized by the liver in a two-step process. In a review of previous studies on alcohol use disorders, 28% attributed red wine as the trigger, followed by spirits (14%), white wine (10%) and sparkling wine/beer (10%). Red wine headache (RWH) does not require excessive amounts of wine as a trigger. In most cases, the headache is induced in 30 min to 3 h after drinking only one or two glasses of wine3. Wine constituents such as biogenic amines, sulphites, phenolic flavonoids, or tannins have been reported as the possible cause of wine headaches. Nevertheless, no chemical constituent has been clearly implicated as the primary trigger of red wine headache (RWH) nor has a mechanism for eliciting the headache been proposed.

The Devi and Andrew L. Whitehouse study proposes that the headache caused by red wine is due to the presence of quercetin and its glycosides, which upon metabolizing to quercetin glucuronide, inhibits ALDH2 enzyme activity. If alcohol is introduced, a headache results.

Not only may the study potentially be "very helpful for people who drink red wine to be able to choose wines less likely to cause headaches,” Levin said. “Also, winemakers may use our findings to reduce quercetin in their wines.”

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