Scientists may have uncovered the mystery behind the swift and often perplexing headaches associated with red wine consumption. A team of researchers, led by Morris Levin, the director of the Headache Center at the University of California, San Francisco, believes they have identified the culprit: phenolic flavonoids.
These headaches, distinct from the typical hangover, can occur as quickly as 30 minutes after consuming just one or two small glasses of red wine. Various compounds in red wine, including tannins, sulphites, and biogenic amines, have been suspected over the years, but none were conclusively proven as triggers.
The focus of the recent study, published in Scientific Reports, honed in on phenolic flavonoids, compounds derived from grape seeds and skin that contribute to red wine’s color, taste, and mouthfeel. Specifically, the researchers identified a flavanol called quercetin, found predominantly in red wine, as a key player.
During the metabolism of alcohol in the liver, quercetin is processed into quercetin glucuronide. This substance, according to the researchers, is effective at blocking the enzyme responsible for converting acetaldehyde into acetate. The buildup of toxic acetaldehyde in the bloodstream at higher levels is believed to cause headaches, nausea, facial flushing, and sweating—similar to the effects of a drug called disulfiram, used to induce unpleasant symptoms in alcoholics.
The researchers hypothesize that individuals susceptible to red wine headaches, particularly those prone to migraines, may have enzymes that are more easily blocked or may be more vulnerable to toxic acetaldehyde. The next step involves clinical trials to test the theory, focusing on the headache-inducing effects of red wines with varying quercetin levels. This research could pave the way for people to choose red wines less likely to cause headaches and guide winemakers in adjusting quercetin levels in their products.
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