Uncorking the Mystery: Study Discovers What Causes Red Wine Headaches


Nov. 21 2023, Updated 12:24 p.m. ET

A caraf of red wine and four glasses of wine.
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The Gist:

  • Many people get headaches from red wine.
  • A study found red wine headaches are caused by the flavonol quercetin.
  • Red wines made from grapes exposed to more sunlight have higher levels of quercetin.
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After a long day at work, there's nothing better than kicking back with a nice glass of Cabernet or Merlot and relaxing. Or, maybe you prefer a little red before bed to help you sleep soundly.

However, for some unfortunate people, red wine triggers painful headaches. Researchers have been trying to figure out why red wine causes headaches for years. Is it the tannins? Or the sulfites? A study published in November 2023 may have finally pinpointed the real culprit of the red wine headache.

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A guy with a headache drinking red wine.
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A study may explain why red wine gives drinkers headaches.

Scientists at the University of California Davis found that red wine headaches are caused by a flavanol called quercetin. While quercetin is present in all wines and other alcoholic beverages, red wine “contains much higher levels of quercetin,” UC-Davis researchers wrote in a study published Nov. 20, 2023, in Scientific Reports.

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Flavanol is a type of chemical compound found in fruits, plants, and vegetables, per Medical News Today. Research published in 2022 suggests that flavanols have health properties like acting as "antioxidant, anticarcinogen, cardioprotective, anti-microbial, anti-viral, and neuroprotective agents."

Quercetin itself is a "healthy antioxidant," but once in the bloodstream, it converts to quercetin glucuronide, which blocks alcohol from being metabolized and causes a build-up of a toxin called acetaldehyde.

“Acetaldehyde is a well-known toxin, irritant, and inflammatory substance,” said the study’s lead author Apramita Devi, a postdoctoral researcher with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. “Researchers know that high levels of acetaldehyde can cause facial flushing, headache, and nausea.”

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Two women drinking red wine.
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“We postulate that when susceptible people consume wine with even modest amounts of quercetin, they develop headaches, particularly if they have a preexisting migraine or another primary headache condition,” said co-author Morris Levin, professor of neurology and director of the Headache Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

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Here's how to prevent red wine headaches.

The study indicated that the way to prevent red wine headaches is to choose red wines with less quercetin. Grapes grown in high sunlight can contain more quercetin, making them more likely to cause headaches, researchers said.

“If you grow grapes with the clusters exposed, such as they do in the Napa Valley for their cabernets, you get much higher levels of quercetin. In some cases, it can be four to five times higher,” said wine chemist and study co-author Andrew Waterhouse, professor emeritus with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, per the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

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Two people clinking their glasses of red wine together.
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A 1998 study backs up this theory and also found that Chilean reds like Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Merlot “contained consistently higher concentrations of flavonols” than those from other regions.

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UC Davis researchers plan to hold a clinical trial to test their findings on real people, the Guardian reports. “It will be potentially very helpful for people who drink red wine to be able to choose wines less likely to cause headaches. Also, winemakers may use our findings to reduce quercetin in their wines,” Levin told The Guardian.

Are there any cures for red wine headaches?

Are you one of those people who get a headache from red wine? If switching to white or rosé is out of the question, the most suggested way to cure a red wine headache is to be proactive and take a couple of Tylenol (acetaminophen) or ibuprofen before you indulge in some vino, according to Wine Folly.

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