The Road Less Travelled

Explore /

Hangovers: What Causes Them and How to Avoid Them

Contents

Caroline Gilby Caroline Gilby

Caroline Gilby MW tries to unravel some of the science behind the headache, how to know your limits and how to deal with your throbbing head!

What exactly causes hangovers and headaches?

The biochemistry of wine is complex, and therefore perhaps won't be surprised to discover that scientists know remarkably little about what exactly causes hangovers and headaches from wine and what to do about it.

Are sulphites to blame?

'Sulphites' are often the first thing that gets the blame, but this may be more to do with labelling than science. Surprisingly, it is against the law to declare ingredients on alcoholic drink labels except for certain allergens like egg and milk, and 'contains sulphites' for any wine with more than 10 ppm (parts per million).

The process of fermentation itself produces sulphites, so wines that don't contain sulphites are almost impossible to find. There are a few wines that do not contain any additional sulphites but wines like this are difficult to make and keep in good condition so are also relatively rare (see my article 'What are natural wines?' for more on the role of sulphites in winemaking).

The process of fermentation itself produces sulphites
The process of fermentation itself produces sulphites

The reason for this obligatory label declaration of sulphites is that a small percentage (estimated to be no more than 1%) of the population is sensitive to sulphites, something of particular concern to asthmatics. Symptoms include breathing difficulties and urticaria (an itchy red skin rash) – but not headaches.

One way of testing if it is wine or sulphites that are the problem is to eat dried apricots, figs or pre-prepared salads which often contain considerably higher levels of sulphites than wine. It may be reassuring to know that the European Food Standards Agency is continuing to test sulphite levels in food and drink, and has recently reviewed safe levels of exposure. Its latest findings, published last year, show current permitted levels are acceptable for most consumers and show no concerns about cancer or toxicity, but research is continuing. And it's also worth noting that red wines tend to have lower levels of sulphites than whites as the tannins and pigments act as natural preservatives.

One way of testing if sulphites are a problem is to eat dried apricots, figs or pre-prepared salads
One way of testing if sulphites are a problem is to eat dried apricots, figs or pre-prepared salads

The red-wine headache syndrome

Red wine headache is a symptom that affects some people who cannot tolerate even tiny amounts of red wine. Several possible causes have been proposed and one is the presence of biogenic amines in wine. These are derived from amino acids and can be produced in the body but also by microbial metabolism, and it's this area that is of interest in wine.

A biogenic amine called histamine can cause allergic reactions or intolerance and may be found at higher levels in wines that have undergone malolactic fermentation. The level of histamine varies by wine, and the process of producing it, but red wine has been found to have 20 to 200% more histamine than white.

One reason is that red wine almost always goes through malolactic fermentation but this is not always the case for whites. Oenococcus oeni (aka Leuconostoc oenos) is the species of bacteria that is used in commercial malolactic preparations and this usually produces low levels of histamines.

Are so-called 'natural' wines better for sensitive heads?

But many producers prefer a natural malolactic fermentation and other species of so-called Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) found in wine can produce high levels of histamine. So potentially more 'natural' wines may be a higher risk for sensitive drinkers. One suggestion (though take proper medical advice) is to take an antihistamine before drinking red wine to reduce symptoms.

And just to complicate matters, there is some evidence that drinkers who appear to be sensitive to red wine may be deficient in an enzyme called DAO (or diamine oxidase) which breaks down amines, plus for good measure it has been suggested that red wine also inhibits this enzyme.

Another amine that can cause headaches is tyramine, which is found in wine, cheese and other fermented foods. This is also produced by certain LAB found in wine, though its level varies with conditions during fermentation such as sulphite level, pH and nutrient availability.

And what about the congeners?

Another important group of chemical components of wine are the congeners. Congener (which means 'born together' derived from Latin) is a term for by-products of the alcoholic fermentation. This includes important flavour components such as higher alcohols (sometimes called fusel oils for their oily appearance when distilled), esters and aldehydes.

Levels of congeners are typically higher in darker alcoholic drinks such as brandy, rum, red wine and Port gets a 'double whammy' as it's made from red wine with added brandy. Higher levels of congeners are associated with warmer fermentations, exposure to air and oak ageing – techniques which are typical for many red wines. Research suggests that high levels of congeners are associated with feeling worse after drinking. One research paper (Rohsenow et al 2010) compared hangovers after drinking vodka (very low in congeners) compared to bourbon (high congener content). It found similar levels of cognitive impairment between the two drinks but hangover symptoms such as headache were worse with bourbon.

Oak ageing is associated with higher levels of congeners which can be implicated in provoking headaches
Oak ageing is associated with higher levels of congeners which can be implicated in provoking headaches

One congener that is implicated in problems with alcohol is acetaldehyde. This can be produced through oxidation of ethanol (for instance during oak ageing) and is also the first breakdown product of ethanol in the body. It is estimated to be 10 to 30 times as toxic as ethanol itself and it has been shown to induce hangover-like symptoms. For some people (particularly of Asian descent) genetic mutations both slow breakdown of acetaldehyde and may produce higher levels in the body too, causing a syndrome known as Alcohol Flush Reaction.

Are tannins implicated in any way?

Another component of red wine that is implicated in the effects of drinking is tannin. Some research suggests that tannins can cause vaso-relaxation or relaxation of blood vessels which is a precursor to headache. Consumption of caffeine before drinking wine is reported to help counteract this effect.

The dreaded dehydration

https://res.cloudinary.com/tws/image/upload/q_auto:low,f_auto/v1533655853/Explore/content_images/water_glass.jpg

Many drinkers will recognise dehydration as a feature after a heavy night of drinking. This is because alcohol suppresses a hormone called vasopressin which acts as an anti-diuretic so more frequent trips to the bathroom result. Dehydration may have something to do with the morning-after headache, though it can occur even in drinkers who consume lots of water. Alcohol also may trigger release of cytokines and a reaction against inflammation similar to that of the body battling an infection.

No substitute for being sensible

So of course, sensible drinking is important in avoiding headaches and hangovers but there are also some other pragmatic steps that may help. Drinking plenty of water to avoid the dehydration effect is one. Eating before or while drinking wine also helps to slow down absorption of alcohol and helps the body to keep up with breaking it down. Alcohol is absorbed through the membranes of the mouth, and throughout the digestive system, but peak absorption is in the small intestine. Eating fatty foods in particular delays gastric emptying so slows down the transit to the small intestine.

Reducing the risks

Sadly, if you know you are sensitive to sulphites, or to red wines, then you may have to accept avoiding these products, but choosing paler and lighter drinks, and particularly wines that have little contact with air or oak ageing, may reduce your exposure to some of the components that may cause headache.

Know your limits so you can continue to enjoy one of life's great pleasures – a good glass of wine with friends.

Caroline Gilby MW

Other articles by Caroline Gilby

Members' Comments (1)

"Many years ago, I was invited to have dinner with a wine merchant known for his ability to 'take a lot of alcohol' without it being apparent in his behaviour. It fortuitously happened that during the afternoon previously, I heard on the wireless (as it was then called) that the following helps if taken after the excess imbibing.
After you binge, drink a pint of water, have 1,000 mg of Vitamin C and a dessertspoonful of honey.
I did... Read more > exactly as told and the following morning I was without a hangover - but still pretty inebriated! We had consumed (the two of us) the equivalent of 7 bottles of wine.
QED
"

Mr Robin N H Butler (14-Oct-2018)

Society Promise
Members before profit
Awards

Our website uses cookies with the aim of providing you with a better service. By using this website you consent to The Wine Society using cookies in accordance with our policy.

Close

4.4. Cookie Policy

By using The Wine Society website, you agree to cookies being used in accordance with the policy outlined below. If you do not agree to this, you must alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you or cease using the website.

The Wine Society uses cookies to enable easy navigation and shopping on the website. We take the privacy of all who use our website very seriously and ensure that our use of cookies complies with current EU legislation. The following guide outlines what cookies are, the types of cookies used on The Society's website and how they work.

You may alter your browser settings to turn off cookies or block those types which are unacceptable to you, but this will cause difficulties when accessing and using some areas of the site. Instructions on how to do this can also be found below.

4.4.1. What are 'Cookies'?

  • Most major websites use cookies.
  • A cookie is a very small data file placed on your hard drive by a web page server. It is essentially your access card, and cannot be executed as code or deliver viruses. It is uniquely yours and can only be read by the server that gave it to you.
  • Cookies cannot be used by themselves to identify you.
  • The purpose of a basic cookie is to tell the server that you returned to that web page or have items in your basket. Without cookies, websites and their servers have no memory. A cookie, like a key, enables swift passage from one place to the next.
  • Without a cookie every time you open a new web page the server where that page is stored will treat you like a completely new visitor.
  • More recently, cookies have also been used to collect information about the user which allows a profile of their preferences and interests to be created so that they can be served with interest-based rather than generic information about available goods and services.

4.4.2. How do Cookies help The Wine Society?

Cookies allow our website to function effectively. Cookies also help us to arrange content to match your preferred interests more quickly. We can learn what information is important to our visitors, and what isn't.

4.4.3. How does The Wine Society use cookies?

The Wine Society does not accept advertising from third parties and therefore, as a rule, does not serve third-party cookies. Exceptions to this include performance/analytical cookies (see below), used anonymously to improve the way our website works, the provision of personalised recommendations, and occasions when we may team up with suppliers to offer special discounts on goods or services.

The Society uses technology to track the patterns of behaviour of visitors to our site.

4.4.4. What type of cookies does The Wine Society use?

We use the following three types of cookies:

4.4.4.1. Strictly Necessary Cookies
These cookies are required for the operation of our website, enabling you to move around the website and use its features, such as accessing secure areas of the website. Without these cookies, services like shopping baskets or e-billing cannot be provided. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Authentication Cookie and Anonymous Cookie
    These cookies remember that you are logged in to your account – without them, the website would repeatedly request your login details with each new page you visit during your time on our website. They are removed once your session has ended.
  • Session Cookie
    These cookies are used to remember who you are as you use our site: without them, the website would be unable to tell the difference between you and another Wine Society member and facilities such as your basket and the checkout process would therefore not be able to function. They too are removed once your session has ended.

4.4.4.2. Functionality & Targeting/Tracking Cookies
These cookies are used to recognise you when you return to our website and to provide enhanced features. This allows us to personalise our content for you. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Unique User Cookie
    This cookie is used to:
    • store your share number in order to identify that you have visited the website before. Without this cookie, we would be unable to tell whether you are a member or not.
    • record your visit to the website, the pages you have visited and the links you have followed. We use this information to make our website, the content displayed on it and direct marketing communications we may send to you or contact you about more relevant to your interests.
    • This cookie expires after 13 months.
  • Peerius Cookies
    These third-party cookies are used to provide you with personalised recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history. They expire within 4 hours of your visit.

4.4.4.3. Performance/analytical cookies
These cookies collect information about how visitors use a website, for instance which pages visitors go to most often, and if they get error messages from web pages. These cookies don't collect information which identifies a visitor. All information these cookies collect is aggregated and therefore anonymous. It is only used to improve how a website works. Under this heading, we currently use the following cookies:

  • Google Analytics Cookies
    These are third-party cookies to enable Google Analytics to monitor website traffic. All information is recorded anonymously. Using Google Analytics allows The Society to better understand how members use our site and monitor website traffic.

4.4.4.4. Authentication Cookie
In order for us to ensure that your data remains secure it is necessary for us to verify that your session is authentic (i.e. it has not been compromised by a malicious user). We do this by storing an otherwise meaningless unique ID in a cookie for the duration of your visit. No personal information can be gained from this cookie.

4.4.5. How do you turn cookies off?

All modern browsers allow you to modify your cookie settings so that all cookies, or those types which are not acceptable to you, are blocked. However, please note that this may affect the successful functioning of the site, particularly if you block all cookies, including essential cookies. For example, In Internet Explorer, go to the Tools Menu, then go to Internet Options, then go to Privacy. Here you can change the rules your browser uses to accept cookies. You can find out more in the public sources mentioned below.

4.4.6. Learn more about cookies

4.4.7. Changes to our cookie policy

Any changes we may make to our cookie policy in the future will be posted on the website and, where appropriate, notified to you by email. Please check back frequently to see any updates and changes to our cookie policy.