Scientists sometimes tackle issues that seem pretty trivial, on their surface. Some folks might say this is a prime example. But many others will be genuinely happy to hear researchers have cracked the ‘Red Wine Headache’ mystery…
We now know what causes ‘red wine headaches’…
Some folks get a splitting headache when they drink red wine. And some of them say the affliction is reminiscent of a hangover. Except it comes on immediately, soon after you start drinking the stuff. And it builds up the longer you drink.
That’s bad news for red wine producers, of course. And they will no doubt be celebrating the recent breakthrough along with their potential new customers.
What’s going on?
Scientists at the University of California Davis (UCD) say they’ve identified the compound responsible for triggering red wine headaches. It’s called quercetin, and it’s a flavonoid found abundantly in red grapes.
There’s that word again: flavonoid. In general, science is finding that foods high in flavonoids are good for us.
An article published by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) paints a glowing portrait of flavonoids: “Flavonoids are phytochemical compounds present in many plants, fruits, vegetables, and leaves, with potential applications in medicinal chemistry. Flavonoids possess a number of medicinal benefits, including anticancer, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties. They also have neuroprotective and cardio-protective effects.”
But as the UCD researchers found, some flavonoids are anything but helpful.
How it works
You get a red wine headache only if you are genetically prone to them. Nothing science can do about that! But we now know how the biomechanism behind them works.
Quercetin inhibits an enzyme called ALDH2, which the body uses to break down alcohol. As a result, it allows toxic chemicals to build up. And your body reacts rebelliously.
It’s important to note that, while quercetin is found in other common plants – notably members of the onion family – they usually don’t cause a headache. As long as there’s no alcohol involved. But if you’re drinking red wine with a meal… You get the picture.
Some wines still okay
White wines won’t trigger a quercetin headache. And the UCD researchers say some reds, such as European Cabernets and ‘non-premium’ (i.e.- cheaper) domestic Cabernets can be imbibed with impunity. Wines to avoid, ironically, include the ‘best’, ‘biggest’ European and ‘premium’ domestic Cabernets.
If you are prey to red wine headaches, you may want to cautiously try some Merlots, Pinots, and Rosés to see if they trigger you. They’re lighter overall, including in quercetin. Chances are – unless you’re ultra-sensitive to quercetin – you’ll be able to drink some of them.
Perhaps the best news: Champagne is smack in the middle of the ‘safe’ zone. You’ll never have to beg out of a special-occasion toast or a New Year’s midnight ‘HOO RAH!’. Go ahead and have another glass… (Unless you’re driving!)
We’ve heard many good things about red wine flavonoids in the past. Now, perhaps, everyone will be able to take advantage of them!
BTW: I have to share this… The researchers are preparing to perform ‘scientific’ (controlled) experiments on humans, to prove their theory. However, they may have a little trouble getting the simplest, most straightforward of their proposed trials approved by the ethics mavens. They’ve designed a program of detailed experiments focusing on the blood chemistry of quercetin…
But team leader Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, professor emeritus at the University of California Davis says – perhaps with tongue in cheek: “Another, simpler, experiment would be to provide red wine headache subjects with a quercetin supplement or placebo and a standard drink of vodka, to see if headaches result.”
Meanwhile, grape breeders have already started trying to develop new, low-quercetin red grape varieties that could solve the problem once and for all.
~ Maggie J.