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Fresh clue to red wine headaches revealed by new study

Scientists may have moved closer to solving a 'millennia-old mystery', after new research suggested a component found naturally in grapes could trigger a mechanism leading to headaches for some red wine drinkers.

Researchers have reported a fresh breakthrough in efforts to understand why drinking red wine may be more likely to cause headaches in some people.

A particular phenolic compound found naturally in red wines could lie at the root of a mechanism that triggers headaches, said researchers writing in the journal Scientific Reports and including scientists from the University of California Davis (UC Davis).   

Headaches of all kinds affect around 16% of the world’s population daily, and alcohol is known to cause headaches ‘when consumed in large quantities’, said the study.

Yet, for some people, overdoing it at a celebration or party isn’t the only pitfall. One or two small glasses of red wine can lead to a headache within 30 minutes to three hours among some drinkers, said the study, citing previous research in 2008.

No specific chemical culprit or mechanism has previously been identified, although several wine components have been linked to wine headaches, said the study.

Authors also noted that phenolics and high phenolic foods have not been linked to headaches.

Yet they found that a flavanol named quercetin, which is present in varying quantities in red wines, may interfere with the body’s ability metabolise alcohol. 

Quercetin is considered a healthy antioxidant found in a range of fruits and vegetables, including grapes, and has been linked to a number of potential benefits. However, researchers said it’s the combination with alcohol that may cause an issue.

‘When it gets in your bloodstream, your body converts it to a different form called quercetin glucuronide,’ said wine chemist and study coauthor Andrew Waterhouse, professor emeritus with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. 

‘In that form, it blocks the metabolism of alcohol,’ he said in an article published by UC Davis on the research.

This can lead to a build-up of a toxin known as acetaldehyde, which may cause headaches and nausea, said lead study author Apramita Devi, postdoctoral researcher in the UC Davis viticulture department.

A pre-existing migraine or another headache condition may exacerbate the problem, said Morris Levin, professor of neurology and director of the Headache Center at the University of California, San Francisco. 

Researchers said they still needed to test their hypothesis in a clinical trial, and added that there are still many unknowns about the causes of red wine headaches – and why they affect some people more than others. 

We think we are finally on the right track toward explaining this millennia-old mystery,’ said Levin. ‘The next step is to test it scientifically on people who develop these headaches, so stay tuned.’


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