Red wine has long been a favored beverage at Thanksgiving dinners, but for some, it can lead to unwelcome headaches after just a glass or two. Scientists have been puzzled for years about the cause of these red wine headaches, and previous culprits such as tannins, sulfites, and histamines have been considered. However, recent research suggests that quercetin, a compound found in grape skins, may be the main contributor to this discomfort.
Quercetin serves as a natural sunscreen for grapes by absorbing ultraviolet light. Its presence in wine is directly related to the amount of sunlight the grapes receive during growth. Grapes exposed to more sunlight produce higher levels of quercetin. While quercetin is known for its antioxidant properties, it can trigger headaches when combined with alcohol.
The human body has a complex process for metabolizing alcohol and eliminating toxins. Alcohol, or ethanol, is broken down in the liver through two steps. Enzymes first convert ethanol into acetaldehyde, a toxic substance. Then, they further break down acetaldehyde into harmless acetate molecules. However, when quercetin enters the bloodstream, it is transformed into quercetin glucuronide, a compound that inhibits the enzyme responsible for converting acetaldehyde into acetate. As a result, acetaldehyde accumulates in the body, leading to headaches.
Red wine headaches are a relatively common condition, particularly among individuals prone to headaches and migraines. These headaches typically differ from hangovers, occurring within minutes to hours after drinking red wine and featuring symptoms such as a throbbing head, nausea, and an overall feeling of discomfort.
While there is no surefire cure for red wine headaches, researchers suggest a few strategies. Choosing less expensive wines, which tend to have lower quercetin levels due to reduced sun exposure, may help. However, it’s essential to note that these wines might have less silky tannins. Alternatively, wine enthusiasts can opt for varietals like pinot noir and syrah, known for their lower alcohol content. Reducing stress levels and staying hydrated can also mitigate the risk of experiencing wine-induced headaches.
Researchers plan to conduct further clinical trials to explore their quercetin theory, offering hope for a potential solution to red wine headaches. In the meantime, wine lovers may need to experiment with different wine varieties or consider switching to white wine, which lacks quercetin due to the removal of grape skins during fermentation. White wine and rosé are excellent alternatives for those looking to enjoy wine without the risk of headaches, especially during holiday gatherings like Thanksgiving.