Over the years, research has shown that moderate alcohol consumption may provide health benefits over total abstinence. In spite of this, there are some people for whom combining alcohol with a tendency toward migraines. Patients often make this decision after experiencing a strong connection between alcohol and migraines firsthand.
While this is not necessarily true for everyone, it’s true for so many people that a trend toward abstinence developed among migraine-sufferers. In fact, one Dutch study found that 25% of people who suffered from migraines had stopped drinking because it was either an actual or potential trigger.
Will alcohol act as a trigger for migraines for you? How do you know if it is? Is it worth abstaining if it only happens a few times? What can you do to prevent or treat the headaches? These are just some of the many questions you may have. See the answers below.
What Causes Migraines?
Migraine is a symptom of an underlying condition, and one of the elements of a migraine is a headache. A migraine is headache with other symptoms such as sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vomiting, aura and more. We know that if we treat the underlying cause, we can make great strides in helping migraine patients live pain-free.
Although most in the medical and scientific community look at migraine as a condition and are unsure of why it happens, at the National Headache Institute, we believe that migraine is a symptom, not a unique condition.
What’s the Connection Between Alcohol and Migraines?
Migraine triggers may include humidity, stress and more. For some people that also includes alcohol, maybe just certain kinds. These are varied and may differ person-to-person basis. According to an article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, one-third of migraine sufferers point to alcohol as a trigger.
Scientists are still trying to understand how or why alcohol acts as a trigger for some people who suffer from migraines. At present, most studies seem to link to headaches after alcohol to congeners, a byproduct of alcohol, most commonly found in darker drinks, such as whiskey, brandy and red wine.
Other hard liquors, beer, and sparkling wine have also been identified as culprits by the scientific community. For some people any alcohol can trigger a migraine. The body converts the ethanol in alcohol that we drink to a chemical that can trigger headaches. Many people may also develop headaches due to the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
Finally, alcohol often also contains histamine. Unfortunately, this may lead to inflammation throughout the body, which can trigger migraines in some people.
“I believe that migraine is just a symptom, not a condition. Headache is one symptom of the migraine syndrome,” says Payman Sadeghi, MD, founder of the National Headache Institute. “Triggers cause an increase in inflammation because you’re sensitive to some element of the trigger. But without an underlying cause, triggers are irrelevant. So if alcohol is triggering your migraine, we need to find that cause of your symptoms and treat that first.”
How Do You Know When Alcohol Triggers Your Migraines?
When enjoying a night out on the town, there are several triggers you may expose yourself to including bright flashing lights, loud music, food and alcohol. A slice of cheesecake or pizza can do far more damage for some people than others.
So it’s best to make alcohol the single, isolated factor and journal what triggers each migraine. Whenever one comes on, jot down what you last ate, how much sleep you got, what the current environmental factors are, and anything else that may help you to find out what the cause is. This will help your doctor isolate the cause of your migraine and your triggers.
If, after keeping track, you become convinced alcohol is the problem, then it’s now time to identify the symptoms. A common misconception is that overconsumption of alcohol is what triggers headaches. As many migraine sufferers can attest to, sometimes it just takes one glass of wine or even a sip.
That said, your headache is not typically immediate. If yours is, something else might have triggered it. The migraines tend to start within three hours of consuming alcohol. For some people, it starts as early as 30 minutes. Sometimes, migraines don’t plague patients until the next morning, just as their blood-alcohol content level is back to normal. Many people confuse this with a regular hangover until the intensity of the migraine sets in.
What Can You Do to Prevent an Alcohol Induced Headache?
Many people have turned to abstinence as their preventative measure for reasons stated above. Here are some other things people have found useful.
Avoid Alcohol During Stress
If both stress and alcohol are migraine triggers for you, combining them won’t do you any favors. In addition to this, people are sometimes more likely to drink more when they are feeling stressed and a little reckless.
Drink With a Meal
As long as you don’t eat meals containing other triggers, this is one of the best things you can do. Try to stick to just a glass or two and eat enough for the food to soak up some of that alcohol.
Be Aware of Liquid Medications
Liquid sleep and cough medications often contain alcohol. Read the labels and keep track in your migraine journal. If they trigger migraines look for an alternative without alcohol.
Hydrate Well and Consume Consciously
If you want to drink while celebrating, make sure you drink at least one glass of water for every alcoholic drink you have. An alcoholic drink is one 12 ounce beer, a 4 to 5 ounce glass of wine or a single shot of hard alcohol, even in a mixed drink. Keeping your drinks clear and simple (plain soda and a lime wedge) may help too, since you’ll be avoiding additives and extra sugar. Some people report that taking 400 milligrams of ibuprofen can help prevent a headache. (Note: AVOID acetaminophen within 24 hours of drinking alcohol! It can result in liver failure when combined with any amount of alcohol. Some common medications, such as Excedrin Migraine, contain acetaminophen. Always read ingredient labels!)
What are Your Treatment Options?
If none of the preventative measures above work or you didn’t know alcohol triggered migraines until after the fact, there are still options available to you. Some people drink to numb headaches. However, if you already have a headache, it is a good idea to stop drinking.
Dehydration triggers some migraine cases; therefore, drinking plenty of water can help, even after the fact. Drinking water helps replenish your fluids and flush the alcohol out of your system. If you tend to get migraines within three hours or less of drinking, this might work best for you. Drinking an electrolyte drink may help as well.
If you tend to get your migraines as part of a hangover the morning after, water alone may not help. However, think twice about some home remedies for hangovers as they can make things worse. Instead, Mayo Clinic recommends the following:
- Apply either hot or cold compresses.
- Drink caffeinated beverages.
- Turn off the lights.
- Get some rest.
Ask Your Doctor About Triptans
If you know a migraine is likely to come on and plan to drink anyway, triptans can help. They are rescue medicine, not for prevention. Of course, like all medications, they have their own side effects. Also, follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding alcohol consumption.
Get Professional Help
If migraine headaches continue to cause you grief, look beyond home remedies. At the National Headache Institute, we investigate to find the underlying causes of migraine and headaches. We have created customized plans than have helped more than 12,000 people live the pain-free lives they deserve. Contact us today to learn more or book a consultation.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock / By Motortion Films