Mystery of why red wine can cause headaches ‘solved’ by scientists

20 November 2023, 16:21

A woman tasting red wine, with a vineyard on background
A woman tasting red wine, with a vineyard on background. Picture: Alamy

By Christian Oliver

Researchers have claimed they now know why some people get headaches after drinking red wine - even when they're fine drinking other alcohol.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

The team at the University of California say the headaches are caused by a compound in red grapes that affect how the body metabolises alcohol in wine.

Those that complain of the headaches claim to experience a swift and sudden pain up to 30 minutes after cosuming red wine - even in very small amounts.

Some even say they experience flushes and feel nausea soon after drinking a glass.

The compound in question - an antioxidant or flavanol called quercetin - is more common in red gapes that are more exposed to sun.

Quercetin is a type of flavanol - a plant pigmant - that give produce their colours. It found in fruits, vegetables, teas, cocoa and grapes. It can also be sold over the counter as a suplement to reduce inflammation and hypertension.

However, when this is combined with red wine, quercetin can prevent the proper breakdown of alcohol.

Woman holding a glass of red wine (file image)
Woman holding a glass of red wine (file image). Picture: Alamy

Read More: Chickenpox vaccine should be given to children on the NHS, government scientists say

Read More: 'Chimaera' monkey with glowing fingertips and eyes created by Chinese scientists

Wine produced in areas like the Napa Valley are likely to contain higher levels of quercetin than other wines, the researchers say. The antioxidant is otherwise healthy, but can have brief adverse affects on some people.

The increased sunlight means that more expensive wine is likely to have a greater affect on more headache-prone people than if they drank cheaper wine exposed to less sunlight.

"The cheap grape varieties are grown on vines with very large canopies and lots of leaves, so they don't get as much sun," Professor Andrew Waterhouse told BBC News.

"Whereas the high-quality grapes are from smaller crops with fewer leaves. The amount of sunshine is carefully managed to improve the quality of the wine."

Despite the findings, some are sceptical of the research. Other scientists and researchers said cheaper wines were worse for headaches due to an increased number of additives and stabilisers used in mass-market alcohol.