Alcohol can trigger headaches, including migraines, cluster headaches, and tension-type headaches. Around 30 percent of people who experience recurrent migraines report alcohol as a trigger. About half of those with less common headache disorders, such as cluster headaches, paroxysmal hemicrania, hemicrania continua, and familial hemiplegic migraine, also notice that alcohol precipitates their headaches.
If you have chronic headaches, identifying and avoiding your triggers can substantially improve your quality of life. To determine if drinking is one of yours, it’s helpful to learn the signs of alcohol headaches.
Types of Alcohol Headaches
There are two well-recognized types of alcohol headaches. According to criteria from the International Classification of Headache Disorders:
- An immediate alcohol headache occurs within three hours of consuming alcohol (previously referred to as a cocktail headache).
- A delayed alcohol headache, which can begin between five and 12 hours after consuming alcohol, (known as a hangover headache).
Alcohol headaches tend to be bilateral (affect both sides of the head). A cocktail headache tends to have a pulsating or throbbing quality, while a hangover headache is typically associated with fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell. Often, alcohol-induced headaches also have characteristics that resemble your usual headaches, whether they are migraines, cluster headaches, or tension headaches.
How Alcohol Headaches Are Triggered
There have been several proposed explanations for how alcohol headaches are triggered. Red wine is the type of alcohol most often reported as a headache trigger. Tannin, a component in red wine, has been long considered the culprit. In addition to red wine, other alcoholic beverages, including beer, white wine, and liqueur, have also been reported as headache triggers.
Substances such as sulfites, histamine, and tyramines are found in alcohol and may contribute to headaches as well. It has also been proposed that alcohol triggers an inflammatory response that can lead to an alcohol headache.
It has been suggested that a tendency to experience alcohol headaches could be genetic. And researchers suggest that experiencing an unpleasant effect from drinking alcohol may alter alcohol consumption.
Many headache sufferers abstain from alcohol or consume less than the general population. Studies also show that alcohol abuse disorders are less common among people who experience headaches, indicating that a predisposition to alcohol headaches may offer individuals some degree of protection from alcohol overuse. It’s important to note that alcohol use disorder is a serious illness that can have life-threatening consequences. Please see your healthcare provider if you are concerned about your alcohol use.
When an Alcohol Headache Strikes
If you experience one of these alcohol headaches, the best strategies are:
- Taking an over-the-counter pain medication
- Making sure you stay hydrated; opt for water and/or beverages with electrolytes, such as sports drinks
- Eating something bland, if you are hungry
- Getting some rest
Generally, these episodes resolve within a few hours but can last up to a whole day. If you have persistent lightheadedness or vomiting, seek medical attention.
What is Alcoholism?
We are used to hearing about Alcoholism quite often, we even lightly use the term most of the time to refer to someone who just likes to drink, but it is a really serious disease and should not be taken lightly. In the scientific article ‘The Definition of Alcoholism’ Morse RM, Flavin DK, published on Jama Network Journal, a 23-member multidisciplinary committee of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and the American Society of Addiction Medicine conducted a 2-year study of the definition of Alcoholism.
Therefore, the committee agreed to define Alcoholism “as a primary, chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. The disease is often progressive and fatal. It is characterized by impaired control over drinking, preoccupation with alcohol, use of alcohol despite adverse consequences, and distortions in thinking, most notably denial. Each of these symptoms may be continuous or periodic.”
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the United States
According to the 2019 NSDUH, 14.5 million people ages 12 and older had AUD. This number includes 9.0 million men and 5.5 million women. This problem threatens a big number of young people too, as stated by the same source, an estimated 414,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 to 177 had AUD. This number includes 163,000 males and 251,000 females.
An estimated 95,000 people, approximately 68,000 men, and 27,000 women die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. The first is tobacco, and the second is poor diet and physical inactivity.
Causes of Alcoholism
It is common to think this condition arises from a person who simply does not know how to control their alcohol consumption and is trapped in a vicious circle, but according to the scientific piece ‘The many causes of Alcoholism’ Cohen, S. Published on the Drug Abuse & Alcoholism Newsletter, there are three main causes of this disease: biological, physiological, and sociocultural.
- Biological causes may be:
- Genetic: “inherited susceptibility to alcohol’s acute effects, impaired ability to catabolize ingested alcohol, or difficulty in dealing with anxiety, frustration, and depression”.
- Biochemical: sensitivity to insulin, episodes of spontaneous hypoglycemia, or adrenal insufficiency.
- Or endocrine: persistently low levels of androgenic hormones.
- Among the psychological causes of Alcoholism are:
- Need for tension relief and anxiety control
- Personality disorders
- Psychodynamic factors
- Learning: tension reduction from drinking provides a positive reinforcement to continue drinking
- Role modeling: peer example or occupational pressures
- Culture-specific drinking traditions, and those stresses and conflicts experienced by certain subcultures also contribute to overindulgence in alcohol
Alcohol’s Effects on the Body
The effects of a drink of alcohol can vary a lot from one person to the next, but it usually takes about an hour for your body to metabolize one drink. Alcohol stays in the body for different periods of time depending on how much you drank, your body weight, and your sex. Factors that influence how quickly alcohol leaves the system include your age, height and weight, and amount of food in your stomach at the time you drink.
But Alcoholism can affect multiple organs of the body, including the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, and even the immune system.
- Brain: alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.
- Heart: drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:
- Cardiomyopathy – Stretching and drooping of heart muscle
- Arrhythmias – Irregular heart beat
- High blood pressure
- Liver: Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including:
- Steatosis, or fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Pancreas: alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion.
- Immune System: drinking too much can weaken your immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. People who drink chronically are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
Treatment for alcoholism
When it comes to Alcoholism treatment, it is normal to think of 12-step programs or 28-day inpatient rehab, but it becomes difficult to think of more options of treatment for this condition. There are a variety of treatment methods currently available. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are three types of treatment:
- Behavioral Treatments: are aimed at changing drinking behavior through counseling. They are led by health professionals and supported by studies showing they can be beneficial.
- Medications: Three medications are currently approved in the United States to help people stop or reduce their drinking and prevent relapse. They are prescribed by a primary care physician or other health professional and may be used alone or in combination with counseling.
- Mutual-Support Groups: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs provide peer support for people quitting or cutting back on their drinking. Combined with treatment led by health professionals, mutual-support groups can offer a valuable added layer of support. Due to the anonymous nature of mutual-support groups, it is difficult for researchers to determine their success rates compared with those led by health professionals.
Reclaim Your Life From Alcohol Headaches
Alcohol triggers an inflammatory response that can lead to an alcohol headache. We Level Up California can provide you, or someone you love, the tools to recover from alcohol addiction with professional and safe treatment. Feel free to call us to speak with one of our counselors. We can inform you about this condition by giving you relevant information. Our specialists know what you are going through. Please know that each call is private and confidential.
 U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Headache.