Alcohol Triggers Migraine Headaches

A migraine is a headache disorder characterized by recurrent headaches that are moderate to severe. Typically, these headaches affect one half of the head and are pulsating in nature, often with intense throbbing in a particular area. Migraine headaches can last for hours or days, and the pain can be so severe that it interferes with your daily activities. Common symptoms of migraines include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to light, sound, and/or smell. 

Triggers of these intense headaches include hormonal changes, stress, certain foods, and yes – alcohol. Alcohol typically triggers two types of headaches in migraine patients, a quick onset attack and a delayed hangover headache.


A Direct Link Between Alcohol and Migraines

A European study of more than 2,000 migraine-experiencing patients found that over 35% of them reported alcohol as a trigger for their migraine symptoms. Also, over 25% of migraine patients reported abstaining from alcohol due to the assumed trigger effects that alcohol has on migraine symptoms. The same is true in America, where migraine patients consume less alcohol than the general public. 


Red Wine May Be the Most Common Trigger

Almost 80% of the European study’s participants named wine – particularly red wine – as the most common trigger out of all alcoholic beverages. Red wine consistently led to a migraine attack among almost 10% of participants. The time it took for a quick onset attack (the typical headache induced by alcohol) to start was “quick” indeed – less than three hours for one-third of participants. And it does not take large quantities of wine to produce these rapid headaches. Only one or two glasses at most need to be ingested.

A delayed hangover headache appears the next morning after alcohol intake. At this time, the blood alcohol level is falling and reaches zero. A delayed hangover headache can be experienced by anyone, but people with migraines are more susceptible. However, red wine may not be the only culprit. Almost 90% of the migraine patients who reported alcohol as a trigger for their migraines experienced symptoms in less than 10 hours, regardless of the type of alcoholic beverage consumed. Therefore, the researchers concluded that alcohol-triggered migraines occur quickly after the consumption of alcoholic drinks in general.


Looking Beyond the Type of Alcohol Consumed 

As far back as 1988, previous studies found that red wine – compared to vodka with an equivalent alcohol content – triggered headaches in migraine sufferers sensitive to wine, while migraine sufferers who are not sensitive to wine did not experience a triggered headache. Researchers concluded that red wine must contain a migraine-provoking agent that is not alcohol. Conversely, some European studies report white wine as the most common trigger. Other studies indicate spirits, sparkling wine, and beer as triggers for headaches. 

The fundamental question remains – is it alcohol or another component of the drink that is responsible for triggering headaches? The answer is still unknown. It may take a combination of factors to provoke a migraine attack, and some people’s brains may simply be more sensitive to alcohol than others.


The Components in Question

Several components of alcoholic beverages – including tyramine, phenylethylamine, histamine, sulfites, and flavonoid phenols – are considered possible triggers for migraine headaches. This is due to their presence in various alcoholic drinks, and the belief that alcohol is capable of triggering migraines. However, nothing has been verified as studies are either negative or lack the adequate proof to support the findings.


Histamine is most frequently mentioned as the component in question. Many foods such as fish, aged cheese, meat (sausage or salami), and vegetables (eggplant, sauerkraut, or spinach) contain much higher amounts of histamine than alcoholic drinks. Histamine infused by vein is a time-tested way to provoke a migraine attack. However, there are many other symptoms of a so-called “histamine intolerance” that are not characteristic of a migraine attack. The fact that antihistamine drugs do not prevent red wine headaches further fails to support histamine as a critical trigger.


The same is true for sulfites, with much higher amounts found in many foods compared to wine. These foods include certain fruits, chips, raisins, soy sauce, and pickles. So-called “sulfite sensitivity” tends to provoke asthmatic responses rather than headaches.

Other Alcohol By-Products

Flavonoid phenols and tannins, two very similar components, are by-products of alcohol fermentation and give wine its distinctive character. Other known alcohol by-products, such as acetone, acetaldehyde, fuseil oil, and furfural, have been suggested as responsible for triggering migraines. Darker colored drinks such as red wine, whiskey, and brandy have more of these by-products than lighter drinks such as white wine, vodka, or gin. But without scientific proof, alcohol itself continues to be considered a migraine trigger until specific components and causes can be identified.


Drug Use Can Also Be a Trigger

Population surveys show that recreational drugs, such as MDMA/ecstasy, may also provoke headaches in a high percentage of users. However, young adults commonly use these drugs in combination with alcohol, making it difficult to identify the actual trigger.


End Your Pain and Get Help

Until further research is conducted, alcohol is identified as a trigger for these painful, often debilitating headaches. You don’t need to suffer alone. If you are struggling with alcohol and/or drug addiction and need help, we are here for you.


At Burning Tree, you will find knowledgeable and compassionate professionals, experienced in creating individualized treatment plans specific to your unique needs. This includes the identification and treatment of any potential co-occurring disorder that may have perpetuated addiction. Through community, accountability, and the support of a 12-Step program, our clients create a foundation in recovery that facilitates long-term sobriety. Everyone deserves a happy and healthy life, free from addiction. Let us help you find yours. For more information, call us now at 866-287-2877.


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