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Can drinking alcohol cause migraines?

Written by: Evelyn Corsini, MSW
Published: July 30, 2008
Reviewed by: Kevin Zacharoff, MD, July 2011

Can drinking alcohol cause migraines?

Migraines can be very painful and can knock you out of action. That's why it'is important to try and find what's causing them. Both men and women get migraines, but for unknown reasons they're about three times more common in women. The main trigger in women is hormonal changes related to the menstrual cycle. These changes decrease after menopause.

Many other possible causes of migraine headaches have been found, including feeling tired or tense, stress, changes in the weather or atmospheric conditions, and certain foods and drinks. It makes sense, then, to think about how the use of alcohol may play a role in the development of migraines.

Conflicting evidence about alcohol and migraines

Studies have shown that some kinds of  alcohol may trigger migraine headaches in some people. However, in other people the opposite is true: alcohol makes the headache better. For people whose migraines are caused or made worse by alcohol, the most common kinds of alcohol have been found to be red wine and beer.

It should be kept in mind that it's not the alcohol itself that causes the migraine. Instead, scientists believe that the  tyramine in red wine and the yeast in beer are the most likely triggers.

The relationship between alcohol and migraines is confusing. Why is alcohol a trigger for some people and a possible source of relief for others? Nobody really knows the answer to that question. A study of over 50,000 people in Norway found a relationship between greater alcohol use and fewer migraine headaches. Another study, in Austria, found that people who drank beer were at lower risk for a migraine the next day.

What does this mean for you? Since the effects of beer, red wine, and other kinds of alcohol seem to be different from person to person, it's a good idea to keep a careful record of your activities, including what you drink and when you do and do not get a migraine headache. If you find any patterns, make sure to tell your healthcare provider. That way, you can benefit from the best possible treatment approach to your migraine headaches.

Drinking too much alcohol

Not surprisingly, overusing alcohol to the point where you get high or drunk does increase the risk of headaches. If your headaches happen only when you drink too much, you need to think about whether your experience is due to the alcohol itself ( a “hangover”) or whether you actually have a migraine headache.

Summary

Is drinking alcohol good or bad for people who get migraines? The answer seems to be different for different people. Become a “headache detective": write down any patterns that you notice, and work closely with your health care provider. This will help you to decide whether and how to use alcohol.


References

Aamodt, A.H., Stovner, L.J., Hagen, K., Brathen, G., & Zwart, J. (2006). Headache prevalence related to smoking and alcohol use. The Head-HUNT Study. European Journal of Neurology, 13, 1233-1238.

Wöber, C., Brannath, W., Schmidt, K., Kapitan, M., Rudel, E., Wessely, P., et al. (2007). Prospective analysis of factors related to migraine attacks: the PAMINA study. Cephalalgia, 27, 304-314.