“I am never drinking again, ever!” How often have you heard someone you know utter these exact words after a night of heavy drinking? How many times have you said them yourself? Sure enough, some people even live up to them until the next Christmas party, New Year’s Eve, or something like that. All jokes aside, though, hangovers have been with us for as long as alcohol, but what exactly causes a hangover? And, more specifically, why are red wine hangovers so bad?
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What Causes Hangover
We all know the symptoms of the red wine hangover – the splitting headache, feeling thirsty, tired, and achy all over, nausea, vomiting on occasion, and some even have it as bad as to feel shaky and unable to gather their thoughts at all, especially with that bastard scraping the driveway in 8 damn in the morning! Sorry for going off on a tangent there.
Surprisingly enough, despite the fact drinking alcohol has been with us for at least 12,000 years (yes, you read that right), not even scientists are completely sure about the actual biological causes of hangovers.
Dehydration was one of the primary suspects for causing hangovers, but it doesn’t entirely cover the entire spectrum. Alcohol is what doctors call a diuretic, which is a substance that causes you to lose water by making you pee a lot. It does it by suppressing vasopressin, the antidiuretic (as in stopping-you-from-peeing-excessively) hormone secreted by your brain.
Dehydration does contribute to headaches, however, since it causes the blood vessels in your body to narrow. This, in turn, restricts the blood flow and the amount of oxygen getting to your brain, causing it to swell as it dilates its blood vessels to compensate for it. The brain doesn’t have pain receptors, but the swelling will trigger the receptors in the membranes enveloping it, which causes that delightful pounding behind the temple.
Another prime suspect when it comes to a red wine hangover is acetaldehyde (bonus points if you can type it with the spellchecker off). Acetaldehyde is a harmful compound that accumulates as a by-product when our bodies process alcohol, and it is believed to be more harmful than alcohol by several orders of magnitude.
Speaking of poisoning, nausea is another charming symptom of a red wine hangover. It comes as a consequence of an irritated stomach and increased production of stomach acid caused by the alcohol (ethanol) itself. The nausea from a hangover doesn’t always end with throwing up, but the increased secretion and inflammation in our intestines is punishment enough. Knowing your wine's ABV will help you decide how much you can safely consume before entering red wine hangover territory.
To continue, a study from Korea shows that alcohol affects the production of a broad spectrum of small proteins called cytokines in our bodies. It’s precisely these proteins that help us fight off inflammation and infections (among other things) by enabling communication among neighboring cells.
In normal circumstances, this is all that cytokines do. Still, if produced in excessive amounts (such as after binge-drinking the night before), they become poison, exacerbating the headaches, nausea, and the feeling of achiness.
Moreover, the researchers further suggest that elevated cytokine levels in our bodies might even lead to memory loss by disrupting memory formation. Remember all those times you couldn’t remember the night before? Yeah… cytokines.
And here’s where we come to our last suspect (but certainly not the least nasty) – congeners. This is an umbrella term for all sorts of chemical compounds often mentioned when discussing alcohol. Unlike acetaldehyde (a byproduct of your body’s deconstructing alcohol), congeners are already present in your booze (Sorry!). There are two ways congeners get there – either during the process of fermentation (alcohol production), or they get added later on in the process. In any case, they’re in your red wine when you drink it.
Scientists believe that congeners contribute to the intoxicating effects of wine (woohoo!), but they also contribute (if not outright cause) to your most severe red wine hangovers. The more congeners in your red wine, the stronger the hangover contribution. In other words, it would appear that the severity of your hangover very much depends on the poison you pick.
Why Red Wine Causes Bad Hangovers
Building upon the previous part where we list all the major causes of the red wine hangover, let’s focus on congeners and how they affect your body, as well as why red wine, in particular, has them.
Scientists call Congeners biologically active compounds, meaning they affect (drumroll, please) your body, brain, or both. The key ingredient of every alcoholic beverage is, of course, ethanol, whereas congeners are found only in trace elements. They are produced as the wine ferments and/or ages, or they can be added artificially after the fact (to change the flavor, among other uses).
The most common congeners are:
acetaldehyde – the percentage is insignificant until your metabolism starts breaking down the ethanol from your drink;
furfural – often added during fermentation, serves to inhibit yeast growth;
fusel oil – produced during distillation, contributes to the flavor in small amounts;
methanol – literal poison, metabolizes into formic acid and formaldehyde, both natural in our bodies but dangerous in high concentrations;
Researchers have posited a correlation between libations rich in congeners and the severity of hangover symptoms, and red wines, along with dark spirits such as bourbon, brandy, tequila, and whiskey, have the highest content of congeners. Fizzy reds are probably even more dangerous, as carbonation speeds up the absorption of alcohol.
What Is In Red Wine That Gives You A Headache
Some folks suffer from terrible red wine headaches. There are even some who wonder if red wine can cause migraines. There is no 100% scientific agreement on what is in red wine that gives you a headache. We know; get on this, scientists!
However, common thinking leads us back to congeners. Specifically, research appears to point to the tannins in the wine.
tannins – textural elements in wine which contain potent antioxidants, suspected to have a connection to migraines (the jury is still out on this one).
You can identify tannins by the drying sensation you get in your mouth. Many people avoid tannins altogether and report fewer migraines as a result. You can also drink red wines that typically have lower tannin levels. Pinot Noir and Gamay fall into the category of low-tannin wines.
Can You Cure A Red Wine Hangover
Now that you know why red wine hangovers are so bad, the next question is usually, "Can I cure a red wine hangover?" We wish we could give you a simple YES!, but it's not that simple. Your best bet is managing your hangover symptoms. Your body needs time to regain its natural balance. It isn't easy to speed that up.
However, some popular methods exist for easing the effects of red wine hangovers or any other alcohol-induced agony. These include; supplements, saline injections, pain reducers, and various food combinations. We've found this morning recovery drink helps to blunt the effects of a red wine hangover if you drink it before you go to bed.
Try these remedies if you don't have time to rest and hydrate. But if you can, drink more water and take a nice nap. That's probably the surest way to cure a red wine hangover.