Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
November 27, 2023 ·  4 min read

Why Do People Get ‘Red Wine Headaches’? (It’s Not the Alcohol)

Red wine has been consumed for thousands of years, dating back to the Neolithic period in the mountains of what is now Iran. It has played a pivotal role in religious ceremonies, celebrations, and negotiations ever since. Nowadays, it is produced and consumed around the world. You can say, in general, people really like to drink it – despite the awful headache it seems to leave behind the next day. Many just assume that the headache is from overconsumption of alcohol. This doesn’t, however, explain why some people will get a headache after even just one glass. The question remains: What is the cause of the infamous red wine headache? (1)

Understanding the Mystery of ‘Red Wine Headaches’: It’s Not Just About Alcohol

Red wine has long been associated with headaches for some individuals, causing them to wonder why they experience this discomfort even after consuming just a small amount of red wine. Interestingly, recent research conducted by the University of California may have uncovered the real culprit behind these notorious headaches— and it’s not solely the alcohol content. Let’s delve into the reasons why some people experience ‘red wine headaches’ and explore the role of a compound found in red grapes called quercetin. (2)

The Role of Quercetin

According to the study conducted by the University of California researchers, ‘red wine headaches’ can be attributed to a compound known as quercetin. Quercetin is an antioxidant found in red grapes, particularly in Cabernets from the sun-drenched Napa Valley. The researchers discovered that this flavanol interferes with the body’s metabolism of alcohol, leading to the development of headaches in susceptible individuals.

Read: 7 Ways Red Wine May Support Your Health

Sunshine and Quercetin Levels

Interestingly, the researchers found that the level of quercetin in red grapes is influenced by the amount of sunshine they are exposed to during growth. Red grapes that are exposed to more sunlight produce higher levels of quercetin. This means that more expensive red wines, made from high-quality grapes with controlled sun exposure, contain more quercetin and are thus more likely to trigger headaches in susceptible individuals.

Understanding the Different Grape Varieties

Some individuals have claimed that cheaper wines are more likely to cause headaches. While the researchers suggest that quercetin plays a significant role, experts like Prof Roger Corder believe that other factors, such as additives in lower-end red wines, should not be overlooked. Further exploration into the additives used in the making of mass-market red wines may shed additional light on why some individuals experience headaches after consuming them.

Read: It’s time to put cancer warning labels on alcohol, experts say

Other Theories and Possible Culprits

Apart from quercetin, other compounds found in red wine have been suggested as potential headache triggers. Sulfites, which are commonly associated with wine preservatives, have been suspected as a possible cause. However, research shows that the sulfite content in sweet white wines is typically higher than in red wines. Similarly, histamine, which is more prevalent in red wine than in white or rosé, has been considered as a potential culprit due to its ability to dilate blood vessels. Nevertheless, there is insufficient evidence to link sulfites or histamine to red wine headaches definitively.

The Genetic Component

Understanding the genetic aspect of red wine headaches is crucial in unraveling why some individuals are more susceptible than others. One in three individuals with East Asian heritage is intolerant to alcohol due to a specific gene that affects the enzyme responsible for metabolizing alcohol called ALDH2 (aldehyde dehydrogenase). When this enzyme is unable to break down alcohol into harmless acetate efficiently, harmful acetaldehyde builds up, leading to headaches and other unpleasant symptoms.

Further Research and Testing

While the discovery of the role of quercetin in red wine headaches is certainly a breakthrough, researchers emphasize the need for additional studies to confirm their findings. Proposed investigations involve administering quercetin supplements to red wine headache-prone individuals, as well as conducting experiments with a control group using a placebo. These studies will provide valuable insights and help confirm the direct relationship between quercetin and red wine headaches.

The Bottom Line

Although it has long been assumed that red wine headaches are primarily caused by alcohol content, recent research suggests that the compound quercetin found in red grapes may be the true culprit. This discovery offers a potential explanation for why some individuals experience headaches, specifically after consuming red wine, regardless of alcohol volume. However, more research is needed to validate these findings and explore other possible contributing factors. Understanding the science behind ‘red wine headaches’ is an essential step towards helping individuals mitigate their symptoms and make informed choices about their wine consumption.

Keep Reading: What Happens To Your Body When You Quit Alcohol For 30 Days?


  1. HISTORY OF WINE.” Arena Flowers
  2. Red-wine headache explained – and it is not about volume.” BBC. Michelle Roberts. November 2023.