Why Does Alcohol Consumption Lead to Headaches?

When it comes to headaches, about one-third of people who get them say alcohol is a contributor. In fact, alcohol is known to make headaches worse, especially for those who are predisposed to getting them. Alcohol is known to cause intense head throbbing (a pulsating sensation in the head) and even trigger headaches for those that don’t normally get them. There are specific reasons for why this occurs, which we’ll discuss more in the article below. 

How Does Drinking Cause Headaches? 

Headaches caused by drinking happen because alcohol has key ingredients that trigger inflammation in the meningeal vessels and within the trigeminovascular system. Both of these systems are important for creating equilibrium within the brain as they regulate blood flow and help to balance pain signal transmission. Alcohol causes pain signaling neurons to fire at an increased rate, thus releasing a powerful peptide called CGRP or Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide. When alcohol binds to pain receptors, also called nociceptors, an outpouring of electrical activity begins to occur within the brain’s cortex. This activity is what causes the headache to occur. 

In addition to the reason above, there are other things that may cause headaches for alcohol users. 

Other Causes of Drinking-Induced Headaches 

Elevated Blood Pressure 

Another factor that causes headaches is elevated blood pressure, which alcohol consumption can cause. 

Serotonin Concentration 

Additionally, alcohol has an influence on the brain’s serotonin levels. Serotonin is a powerful hormone and neurotransmitter known to influence mood, but serotonin does so much more than that. Serotonin also influences the regulation of pain and headaches. Whether alcohol use is short-term or chronic, serotonin levels may be affected and those levels may contribute to pain signaling. 

Glutamate Rebound 

Another cause for alcohol-induced headaches is glutamate rebound, a bodily phenomenon caused in this instance by alcohol use. Glutamate is an excitatory chemical – that means it causes the brain’s neurons to fire, creating activity all over the brain. When we first consume alcohol, our glutamate activity is reduced. But once that alcohol is processed, a glutamate rebound occurs. For those prone or predisposed to headaches and migraines, the possibility of getting one due to alcohol consumption is much higher due to this phenomenon. That’s because those who are predisposed to these conditions naturally have higher levels of glutamate in their brain cortex. 

Metabolic Byproducts 

When alcohol is metabolized, there are certain byproducts, like acetaldehyde, that may contribute to headaches. This specific byproduct has been proven to cause headaches in rodents during lab tests

Dehydration 

Dehydration caused by anything can lead to headaches, whether you’ve exercised without taking a water break or you’re sick with the flu. Dehydration is when the body has a decreased volume of water. Therefore, someone who is dehydrated is urinating less and therefore they’re getting rid of toxins less efficiently. Because alcohol dehydrates the body, it is likely a cause for any sudden onset headache. Alcohol use causes dehydration during two periods: while a person is drinking and after a person is done drinking. Dehydration is a major symptom of alcohol-induced hangover. 

What Impact Do Different Types of Alcohol Have on Headaches? 

Red wine is a big culprit when it comes to headaches, especially when compared to other types of alcohol, such as beer, sparkling wine, white wine, spirits or liquor. The reason for this is that red wine contains tannins, histamines, and phenols that may lead to headaches.  But what are they? 

  • Tannins are plant compounds that are naturally found in the skins of fruits with antioxidant properties. Tannins contain flavonoids and enzymes.
  • Histamines increase inflammation, which is a trigger for headaches. 
  • Phenols have a unique chemical property that gives red wine its robust color. They also may lead to intense headaches. 

How Can You Manage Alcohol-Induced Headaches?

  1. Reduce your alcohol consumption. If you’re getting headaches often, perhaps you’re drinking too much. Consider cutting back. 
  2. Drink more fluids. Alcohol contributes to dehydration. If you’re already dehydrated, alcohol makes it even worse. Make sure you’re drinking water and juices with electrolytes. If you’re going to continue to drink, try to have a glass of water with every single alcoholic beverage you consume 
  3. Take supplements, such as Vitamin C, Coenzyme Q10, magnesium, and more. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help reduce the symptoms of an alcohol-induced hangover. There are also herbal supplements that are good to take. Glutathione is a supplement that will help protect your liver with its detoxifying properties. 
  4. Take a pain reliever or migraine medication. Medicines, like over-the-counter anti-inflammatories may help with headaches. Some good examples are NSAIDs, Ibuprofen, Naproxen, Tylenol, acetaminophen and more. Prescription-strength remedies are powerful and may help if you’re getting frequent and recurring headaches or migraines. 

In Conclusion

If you’re getting headaches and you think drinking is the cause, talk to your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe you medication or they may suggest over-the-counter remedies. Keep in mind, many of these medications may interact negatively with alcohol. Continued use of certain medicines could potentially put you at risk of health issues, like organ damage, heart damage, seizure, or stroke.