A recent study published in the journal ‘Science Advances’ sheds light on why some people cannot drink red wine, even in small quantities, without experiencing a headache. Researchers at the University of California at Davis have found that a compound called quercetin, which is naturally present in all types of fruits and vegetables including grapes, can interfere with the proper metabolism of alcohol and cause headaches.
When quercetin is metabolized with alcohol, it blocks the metabolism of alcohol, leading to an accumulation of acetaldehyde toxin. Acetaldehyde is a well-known irritant and inflammatory substance that causes redness, headache, and nausea. The medication disulfiram is prescribed to alcoholics to prevent them from drinking because it causes these same symptoms by causing the toxin to build up in the body when normally an enzyme would break it down.
The study suggests that susceptible individuals who consume wine with even modest amounts of quercetin may develop headaches, particularly if they have a preexisting migraine or other primary headache condition. However, there are still many unknowns about the causes of red wine headaches. It is not clear why some people seem more susceptible than others or whether the enzymes in people who get red wine headaches are more easily inhibited by quercetin or if this population is simply more easily affected by the buildup of acetaldehyde toxin.
Furthermore, levels of quercetin can vary dramatically in red wine depending on factors such as skin contact during fermentation, fining processes and aging. The scientists are planning a clinical trial with red wines that contain high levels of quercetin and red wines with very low levels to test their theory about red wine headaches in people.