Can Drinking Alcohol Trigger Migraines?

July 28th, 2020

Sipping a nice glass of red wine during a romantic date or gulping down a beer or two on a hot summer day with friends can be a harmless, relaxing activity. But when you are prone to getting migraines, having a single drink can be enough to trigger a head-splitting headache.Migraines and Drinking Alcohol

 

Drinking alcohol is as embedded in our society as having a cup of coffee in the morning. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an astonishing 70 percent of respondents 18 years and older reported having at least one drink during the past year, and more than half (55.3 percent) claimed that they drank in the past month.

You’ve probably heard more conflicting information about alcohol than any other substance. On the one hand, moderate amounts of it have been associated with potential health benefits, like reducing the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and ischemic stroke. On the other, heavy alcohol use can increase your likelihood of developing serious health issues, including several types of cancer, liver disease, pancreatitis, and ironically, heart disease.

But, what about headaches and migraines? Alcohol has long been associated with the development of headaches, with many migraine sufferers cutting back on its consumption in hopes of reducing the frequency and severity of their attacks. The connection between alcohol and headaches is well-known, and there is mounting evidence that confirms that this connection may be particularly true for headache and migraine-prone people. However, recent studies indicate that it may be the type of alcohol, rather than just drinking, what most likely triggers a migraine in some people.

The Link Between Alcohol and Migraines

Alcohol is a liquid produced by fermenting certain foods such as grains, fruits, or vegetables. While people often use the word ‘alcohol’ to describe any substance that can make you drunk, ethanol, the main psychoactive ingredient of alcohol, is responsible for its intoxicating effects.

Although alcohol’s exact mechanism in triggering a migraine isn’t completely understood, several components of alcoholic drinks may contribute to headaches. However, more research is needed to fully understand the links between these compounds and migraine sufferers’ brains.

Histamine

If you have allergies, you are probably familiar with the word ‘histamine.’ It is a chemical made by the immune system that protects you against foreign invaders. When the body secretes it, it triggers an immediate inflammatory response, expanding your blood vessels and making you itch, cough, sneeze, and tear up.

Histamine is also naturally present in several foods and drinks, including alcoholic beverages and particularly red wine. Several problems can occur when histamine levels stay too high for too long, including a histamine intolerance. Histamine intolerances happen when there is an overproduction of histamine in the body. When levels are too high, people often experience headaches, migraines, sinus issues, digestive issues, and fatigue, among others.

Tyramine

A naturally-occurring byproduct of protein-rich foods, tyramine is produced when the tyrosine of certain protein-rich foods breaks down during the preservation, fermentation, or aging processes. The relationship between tyramine and migraines has been widely studied, and research shows that this organic compound may activate specific neurotransmitters in the brain that could induce headaches.

Darker alcoholic beverages, including tap or homebrewed beer, red wine, vermouth, sherry, and others, are higher in tyramine than clear drinks like vodka and gin.

Other Alcohol Byproducts

Although more scientific proof is needed to establish which, if any, alcohol byproducts trigger migraines, sulfites, flavonoid phenols, and tannins are also thought to cause headaches in some people.

Is Red Wine a Migraine Trigger?

Alcohol doesn’t seem to be a migraine trigger for every migraineur, but many do find red wine especially triggering for them. Red wine contains between 20 and 200 times more histamine than white wine, depending on its individual characteristics (type, age, etc.). It is also rich in tannins, which may change serotonin levels in the brain and may trigger headaches in susceptible individuals.

That doesn’t mean that red wine is the only alcoholic beverage that triggers headaches. Darker color spirits like whiskey and brandy tend to have more byproducts than clear alcohols and are more likely to cause migraines in sensitive people.

Bottom Line

Alcohol is a migraine trigger for some people. While not every migraineur will get a headache from having a few drinks, migraine or headache-prone individuals should avoid drinking excessively.

If you suspect that alcohol might be behind your migraine attacks, consider cutting back entirely or switching your drink of choice. And because summer is here and everybody wants to cool off with a refreshing drink, here are two non-alcoholic cocktail recipes that are so delicious that you won’t even miss the alcohol!


Virgin Frozen Margaritas

Ingredients:

  • Lime wedge
  • 1/3 cup coarse sugar
  • 2 cups frozen strawberries
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons agave or honey
  • Fresh strawberries for garnish

Instructions:

  1. Prepare margarita glasses: add coarse sugar to a shallow bowl. Wet the rim of the glasses with the lime wedge and dip the glass top in the sugar to coat the rim.
  2. Place frozen strawberries, orange juice, lime juice, and agave or honey into a blender. Blend until combine and taste, add more agave or honey if necessary.
  3. Pour drink into prepared glasses and garnish with a sliced strawberry on top.

 

Non-alcoholic Piña Colada

Ingredients:

  • 1 (10-oz.) bag frozen pineapple chunks
  • 1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
  • ½ cup pineapple juice
  • ¼ cup ice
  • Pineapple wedges for garnish (optional)
  • Maraschino cherries for garnish (optional)

Instructions:

  1. Place all the frozen pineapple chunks, coconut milk, pineapple juice, and ice into a blender.
  2. Puree until smooth.
  3. Pour drinks into glasses and top with a pineapple wedge and a maraschino cherry.