Why Does Alcohol Give Me a Headache?

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 alcohol poses a constant threat, and who have now opted for avoidance as much as possible. Among this demographic are people who suffer from migraine headaches. 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?

To better understand this, it’s important to note the difference between headaches and migraines. This may seem like petty nitpicking over semantics, but there is a key difference. Migraines are a medical condition that affects roughly 36 million Americans. Headaches are just one of the many symptoms people experience.

While neither scientists nor doctors are clear on what causes some people to have them and some people not to, there are theories. One suggestion is an essential glitch in the brain’s processes. This might affect not just the chemicals in the brain, but the messages it sends out to nerves around the body.

 

Where Does Alcohol Fit In?

While the exact source of migraines is not known, several triggers are. These are varied and may differ person-to-person basis. Reported triggers range from stress to certain cheeses, with alcohol being a common complaint. 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 congeners, a byproduct of alcohol, most commonly found in darker drinks, such as whiskey, brandy, and red wine.

Hard liquor, beer, and sparkling wine have also been identified as culprits by the scientific community. In these instances, alcohol’s main ingredient may be the problem. The body converts ethanol to a chemical that can trigger headaches. Many people may also develop headaches due to dehydration 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.

 

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. Some people also engage in the use of recreational drugs. 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.

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 you from earlier. 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 migraines set 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. What then? Here are some 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. Drinking plenty of water may also help to dilute its effects.

 

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.

 

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 is behind a lot of migraine cases, therefore, drinking plenty of water can help. In fact, many people pace themselves while drinking by having a bottle of water between glasses of alcohol. 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. That said, there are serious health risks associated with this they are most effective when taken at the onset of pain or during an aura. Also, follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding alcohol consumption.

 

Get Professional Help

If migraine headaches continue to cause you grief, it might be time to look beyond home remedies. The National Headache Institute has created customized plans for patients to treat their migraines. Some have managed to get rid of their migraines altogether. Contact a center near you for more information.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / By Motortion Films