A glass of wine is enough to trigger a bad hangover for some people, while others may indulge in heavy drinking yet can escape a hangover entirely. But we can all agree on one thing: the headache, nausea, and fatigue from a wine hangover can render even the strongest among us, useless.
As we have explained in other articles, the unpleasant symptoms from a hangover are generally attributed to a combination of three factors: acetaldehyde (a byproduct of alcohol metabolism), congeners (the toxic impurities found in some alcoholic beverages), and dehydration.
So, what makes wine so different from other alcoholic drinks? Why does red wine cause bad hangovers? And most importantly, how do you cure a wine hangover?
Although there’s no easy answer, science may have found the culprit in a handful of substances present in wine. In other words, the intensity of a hangover is ultimately tied to the amount of “impurities’ in the wine you're drinking.
Follow along as we break down what these impurities are, offer some tips and suggestions, and advice for what to do if you’ve already succumbed to the wrath of a wine hangover.
What are congeners
Congeners are byproducts of alcohol fermentation, and they are partly responsible for the alcohol's color. Darker liquors and red wine have more congeners than lighter ones — for instance, the amount of congeners in bourbon is 37 times the amount in vodka.1,2
In regards to wine, the darker the wine, the more congeners it has, as these also determine alcohol's color and flavor. Scientists believe that congeners not only contribute to the intoxicating effects of wine, but they also contribute to your most severe hangover headaches. The more congeners you consume in your red wine, the stronger the hangover.
But congeners have many different formats.
Types of congeners and other compounds in wine
- Acetaldehyde – flavor compound found in a wide variety of aromatic foods and beverages that have, prior to their final stage of production, undergone a degree of fermentation. Its percentage in the composition of wine is insignificant until your metabolism starts breaking down the ethanol from your drink;
- Fusel oils – these oils are a mixture of higher (greater molecular weight than ethanol) alcohols. Fusel oil, long blamed for hangovers, is recognized for adding flavor complexity in wines;
- Methanol – found naturally in fruit juice and distilled spirits such as whiskey, wine, and beer. A typical glass of wine contains a small amount of methanol, about 0.02% by volume. In comparison, the same glass will have about 10-15% ethanol.
- Sulfites – a preservative that's widely used in winemaking (and most food industries) for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. Sulfite plays an important role in preventing oxidization and maintaining a wine's freshness. Don't worry about sulfites in wines— although many blame them for the “red wine headaches” (RWH), it is likely not true as they're present in a lot of things you eat. Besides, studies may have already debunked this myth.5,6
- Histamines – a chemical that your body makes, and it’s also naturally and frequently found in foods and beverages, including wine. White wine typically contains between 3 to 120 micrograms of histamine per glass, while red wine contains between 60 and 3,800 micrograms of histamine per glass. The result is that red wine can cause allergy-like problems due to its concentration of histamines, leading to red wine headache and hangover.
- Tyramines - naturally occurring amino acid found naturally in some foods. It's especially found in aged and fermented foods like cheese, cured meats, and wine. White wine is free of tyramine because it is made without the grape pulp and seeds – this may help explain the reason white wine is much gentler on your hangover when compared to red.
- Tannins - flavonoids in red wine that give it a drying, sometimes puckering quality. The more tannins a wine has, the more it will dry out your mouth after you sip it. No one is quite sure why red wine may trigger headaches, but some studies have shown that tannins may boost production of the brain chemical serotonin, causing migraines and wine hangovers.4
While the alcohol alone is enough to make many people feel sick the next day, these toxic natural substances listed above can add to the ill effects as our body reacts to them.
In other words, the simple explanation for your red wine headache (RWH) and the hangover is related to the presence of histamines and tyramine, which dilate your blood vessels and bring on the flushing and inflammatory sensations – enough to induce a headache.
Now that you have an idea about what contributes to a wine hangover, let’s outline a few different ways you can combat this dreaded aftereffect!
How to cure a wine hangover:
- Pair every glass of wine with a glass of water. Dehydration is a chief hangover villain. Water is your best friend as drinking alcohol can cause dehydration. If it’s too late and you’re already hungover, drink as much water as possible to rehydrate and eliminate toxins.
- Take anti-histamines before drinking wine. If you know that you get hangovers only from red wine then it could be that you have a histamine problem. If you want to go out and enjoy red wine then try taking some antihistamine before you drink to see if it makes a difference. Make sure to consult your doctor before taking any new medication.
- Prepare before you drink. Take Vitamin C before you drink and Vitamin B6 before sleep. Although this will not stop you from getting intoxicated, it has been proven to lessen the toxicity of alcohol and the irritable side effects that you have the next day.
- Drink lower-alcohol wines. Wines that tend to be lower in alcohol normally come from cooler climates. Pinot Noir is a great low-alcohol option to go for. Besides, sweet wines tend to have more sulfites in them, so choosing a dry wine like Pinot Noir is a safer bet.
- Avoid sugary drinks and foods. Avoid highly-refined sugary soft drinks or food while drinking wine. Refined sugar can activate the immune system and trigger inflammation, which can affect your mental processes the next day.
- Do some exercise the next day. Force yourself to go for a 15-minute jog. If you’re not very active, a 30-minute walk has similar benefits. You don’t want to over-exercise but go just long enough to get your blood flowing and move the toxins out.
It's important to note that congeners are not the tell-all for gauging a potential hangover. There are obviously other components to consider, including the speed and amount of vino you imbibe, as well as how fast your body is able to metabolize alcohol.
Regardless, sipping on a chilled glass of white wine instead of red is usually one way to lessen the chances of waking up with a pounding headache.