Cocktail Headaches: Why Alcohol Leaves Us Clutching Our Heads
Cocktail Headaches: Why Alcohol Leaves Us Clutching Our Heads

Cocktail Headaches: Why Alcohol Leaves Us Clutching Our Heads

Why Alcohol Leaves Us Clutching Our Heads


June 6, 2023

Alcohol and Health
Cocktail Headaches: Why Alcohol Leaves Us Clutching Our Heads
Reframe Content Team
Alcohol and Health
12 min read
Author image
Reframe Content Team
June 6, 2023
12 min read

Back in 30 A.D., Roman author of one of the first medical encyclopedias Cornelius Celsus described what is now known as the notorious “cocktail headache” — a pain that is sometimes mild, sometimes “more violent, but short, yet not fatal, which is contracted…by drinking wine.”

Not to be confused with hangover headaches, which hit five to twelve hours after the last drink, cocktail headaches happen within three hours. The pain varies a bit from person to person, but the main causes are all related to the physiological changes that happen in the brain and body when alcohol enters the system. Let’s unravel why alcohol can leave us clutching our heads.

What Do Cocktail Headaches Feel Like?

A typical cocktail headache can appear while someone is drinking or shortly after. It often feels like a pulsating or throbbing sensation that starts on one side of the head. Picture a tiny but fiercely persistent drummer playing a relentless beat on the brain — not the most pleasant image, is it? This throbbing pain can intensify with physical activity or movement.

Cocktail headaches can also be accompanied by other fun-squashing symptoms. Nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and a general feeling of being unwell can all tag along. Some individuals might be more susceptible than others due to genetic predispositions, allergies, or intolerances to certain ingredients in alcoholic beverages.

A unique aspect of the cocktail headache is its immediacy. This uninvited party guest can show up within a few minutes to a couple of hours of consuming alcohol. Talk about a buzzkill!


So what causes cocktail headaches? The first culprit is dehydration. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes us go to the bathroom. A lot. Every time we do, we're not just losing water; we're also flushing out important electrolytes. These electrolytes help our bodies work smoothly, including maintaining hydration levels and regulating nerve and muscle function.

When we lose too much water and electrolytes, we become dehydrated. Dehydration can shrink the brain, pulling it away from the skull and triggering pain receptors, leading to a headache.


Next on the list is vasodilation. Sounds like a fancy dance move, right? Well, it kind of is, but inside the body! Vasodilation is the widening of blood vessels triggered by alcohol, which can increase blood flow to the brain and cause headaches.

Additional Suspects

Substances found in the ingredients that alcohol is made of or ones produced as byproducts of alcohol fermentation can also be responsible for cocktail headaches. For example, sulfites — compounds often used as preservatives in wine, some beers, and certain spirits — can be a contributing factor. While sulfites are generally harmless, some people are sensitive or allergic to them, leading to a myriad of reactions, including headaches.

Histamines — compounds produced by yeast and bacteria during the fermentation process — can lead to headaches in people who lack the enzyme needed to break them down. Moreover, people whose bodies have trouble breaking down acetaldehyde — a toxic alcohol metabolite — can experience a sudden overproduction of histamine, which, in turn, can trigger migraine headaches.

Another potential cause is tyramine — an amino acid found in various alcoholic drinks. Tyramine is a naturally occurring compound found in various fermented foods and alcoholic beverages. It plays a unique role in the human body, especially when it comes to the nervous and cardiovascular systems, by influencing the release of norepinephrine, a hormone involved in the body's "fight or flight" response.

When consumed in moderation, tyramine poses no significant health risks to most people. However, in excessive amounts or in individuals with specific sensitivities, it can lead to what is known as a tyramine headache. Tyramine prompts the release of norepinephrine, which results in vasoconstriction, or narrowing of the blood vessels in the brain. This constriction can cause an initial decrease in blood flow, and the body's response to restore normal blood flow can lead to overcompensation, causing a rebound vasodilation. This seesaw pattern of blood flow can trigger a headache and adds to the vasodilation that alcohol causes on its own.

Further complexity arises due to the interaction between alcohol and monoamine oxidase — MAO — an enzyme in our bodies responsible for breaking down tyramine. Alcohol inhibits MAO, meaning more tyramine stays in the system longer, potentially amplifying the cocktail headache.

Not So Sweet

Finally, let's talk about an ingredient often found in mixed drinks: sugar. Cocktails are frequently sweet, and that sweetness isn't just there to mask the alcohol — it's part of the taste profile. However, consuming large amounts of sugar can lead to a rapid spike and drop in blood sugar levels, which can contribute to a headache.

High sugar levels in cocktails also impact our hydration status. Alcohol has a diuretic effect, leading to increased urination and potential dehydration. Sugar can compound this effect by altering osmotic balance, exacerbating fluid loss and dehydration, which is a common trigger for headaches.

Moreover, remember how we talked about acetaldehyde — the potent toxin produced by our bodies when we metabolize alcohol? Simultaneously, high sugar content in cocktails leads to a surge of insulin, rapidly lowering blood glucose levels. The combination of acetaldehyde build-up and a sharp drop in blood sugar creates a biochemical double-whammy that puts stress on the brain, leading to a cocktail headache.

Lastly, the interplay between sugar and alcohol can disrupt our neurotransmitter balance. Alcohol affects the central nervous system by altering levels of neurotransmitters — the chemicals that transmit signals in the brain. Sugar, too, can lead to a surge and subsequent crash in serotonin levels. This rapid fluctuation in brain chemistry can manifest as a cocktail headache.

Say Goodbye to Cocktail Headaches

Now that we’ve talked about the science behind cocktail headaches, is there anything we can do to prevent or treat them? Absolutely! Here are some steps that can help avoid the dreaded side effect of drinking:

  1. Hydrate. For every cocktail you enjoy, match it with a glass of water. This hydrating hustle will combat the dehydrating effects of alcohol and reduce your chances of a headache.
  2. Slow down. A slower pace can help keep headaches at bay — and will also make it easier to stay hydrated, since you can pace yourself by having a glass of water between drinks.
  3. Eat before going out. Drinking on a full stomach will help slow down alcohol absorption, reducing headaches as a result.
  4. Watch out for congeners. Darker spirits tend to have more congeners than lighter ones. Opt for lighter colored drinks, like vodka or gin. These tend to have fewer congeners, lowering your risk of a headache.
  5. Sweeten up with honey. Many people find that eating some honey before having a drink can reduce alcohol-related headaches due to honey’s vitamin B6 content.
  6. Know your particular triggers. In the end, it’s all about your body’s unique patterns. If you notice that certain types of alcohol —or mixers — seem to trigger headaches for you, stay away from them as much as possible.

Now, what if despite your best efforts, you still wake up with a pounding head? Time for some treatment!

  1. Refuel with a balanced breakfast. Foods high in vitamins and minerals — such as eggs, avocados, or bananas — can help replenish nutrients and electrolytes lost due to alcohol.
  2. Reach for an OTC pain reliever. Non-prescription drugs can help soothe your headache. But remember, avoid acetaminophen after drinking, as it can cause liver damage when mixed with alcohol — opt for ibuprofen or paracetamol instead.
  3. Drink water. Even if you skimped on water earlier in the night, it’s not too late — rehydrating the body will often do wonders when it comes to soothing headaches.
  4. Go for fresh fruit. Drinks made from fresh fruits can do wonders for making that headache go away thanks to high levels of fructose, which helps rebalance the body.

Try some bouillon. Drinking bouillon not only restores your body’s chemical balance — it also calms the digestive system and reduces the severity of alcohol — related headaches.

Find Balance With Reframe!

Ready to leave the headache of drinking behind? If so, the Reframe app is here to help you get started. By using the tools and skills in the app, you can re-examine the role of alcohol in your life and embark on a journey of change and growth based on the latest science.

Our #1-rated app will give you access to daily readings that will expand your toolbox and allow you to approach life’s challenges in a healthier and more enjoyable way. You will also get a set of daily tasks to complete, including a journal prompt and other activities like guided meditations and motivational quotes to guide and inspire you.

You can become a part of a worldwide community of caring, compassionate people who are ready to share their stories and advice through our 24/7 Forum chat. We can also get you connected with licensed coaches for one-on-one counseling sessions and daily check-in calls via Zoom.

The Reframe in-app Toolkit contains valuable resources that will provide you with additional information about the way alcohol affects your body and mind. The Reframe app is free for 7 days — so go ahead and try it risk-free! We are confident that we can help you make meaningful changes in your life and are eager to be a part of your journey.

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