When it comes to alcohol intolerance, it does not matter how much you consume. All it takes is one drink to make you experience unpleasant reactions.
Alcohol intolerance is often mistaken for alcohol allergy, but the former is distinctly different from the latter. An allergy to alcohol occurs when your immune system overreacts to a drink, according to this Healthline report.
An intolerance toward alcohol, on the other hand, is an inherited metabolic disorder that affects the enzyme that regulates alcohol metabolism states the Cleveland Clinic. In other words, alcohol intolerance occurs because your digestive system is unable to break down alcohol properly. However, people can also experience intolerance symptoms due to the ingredients in alcoholic beverages (more on this later).
It’s worth noting that intolerance has nothing to do with an addiction to alcohol or dependence.
Read on to learn more about the signs and symptoms of this condition.
One sip of beer or red wine can set off alcohol intolerance. The most common signs associated with this condition, are stuffy nose and skin flushing.
To understand how alcohol intolerance occurs, one must understand how the body is supposed to work when it encounters beer or a glass of red wine.
When someone drinks an alcoholic beverage, the ethanol or ethyl alcohol is converted into acetaldehyde. According to the Cleveland Clinic, an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) controls the metabolism of ethanol, and another protein called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) regulates the conversion of acetaldehyde to acetic acid. That conversion renders the harmful acetaldehyde to acetic acid, which is a non-toxic byproduct.
When people have alcohol intolerance, it’s because the ALDH2 enzyme is less active or completely inactive — the result of a genetic mutation. This mutation means that the harmful acetaldehyde will build up in the blood and tissues. This action is why people with alcohol intolerance will experience facial flushing.
Unless the acetaldehyde is converted into the less harmful acetic acid, various symptoms can bloom, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
The common symptoms of alcohol intolerance, states WebMD, are as follows:
If you have asthma, alcohol intolerance can make your symptoms worse.
People can experience symptoms of intolerance when they encounter certain ingredients in alcoholic beverages.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the ingredients that can generate symptoms of intolerance include:
SULFITES (OR OTHER PRESERVATIVES)
Sulfites are added to beer and wine to limit yeast growth and act as a preservative, says Healthline. Potassium bisulfite and potassium metabisulfite are common sulfite compounds employed in this process. Healthline reports that some sulfites can trigger asthma attacks in people with that condition.
HISTAMINE (WHICH OCCUR DUE TO FERMENTATION OR BREWING)
This naturally occurring chemical in your body is found in beer, champagne, and wine, particularly red wine. It is also found in foods like smoked meats, aged cheese, salted fish, vinegar, and yogurt. When your body does not have enough diamine oxidase, an enzyme, to break down histamine, allergic reactions can result. Healthline states that red and itchy skin, shortness of breath, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and nasal congestion can occur from the histamine found in alcohol or other products.
CHEMICALS (GRAINS OR OTHER INGREDIENTS)
The gluten derived from grains found in beer can also result in allergic reactions. These reactions can also occur from alcoholic beverages that are made with gluten grains but are distilled, according to Verywell Health. Distilled beverages that are made from wheat, rye, and barley include vodka, gin, and whiskey.
People of Asian descent are prone to having alcohol intolerance because of an inherited genetic trait. This report from The Conversation states that people of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent tend to have a deficiency in aldehyde dehydrogenase, the enzyme mentioned above responsible for converting acetaldehyde into acetic acid.
You can also be at risk for intolerance if you:
Again, an intolerance is a genetic condition rather than an alcohol use disorder, which occurs from excessive consumption and addiction.
Nevertheless, alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances you can put into your body.
Excessive consumption in the form of binge drinking — that’s four or more drinks for women and five or more for men in the space of two hours — can result in a litany of damaging effects, including liver disease, circulatory system issues, and numerous cancers. Heavy consumption, which is defined as 15 or more drinks per week for men and eight or more for women, can also make one prone to incurring those disastrous effects.
If you believe you fall into either category, then professional treatment is necessary before alcohol takes over your life and leaves you subject to life-threatening health conditions.
Professional treatment can help you by removing the alcohol from your body and treating you for any withdrawal symptoms that arise. This process is called detox.
Depending on the severity of your drinking, you can enter into residential or outpatient treatment.
A residential treatment program will allow you to reside at the treatment site, where you will receive intensive counseling and therapy.
An outpatient program still gives you access to evidence-based treatment and care, but on a part-time basis.
A professional program can also connect you to a recovery community once treatment is over, to provide you long-term support. An example of a recovery community is a 12-Step program for alcohol addiction.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). CDC – Fact Sheets-Alcohol Use And Health – Alcohol. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Alcohol Intolerance. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17659-alcohol-intolerance
Groce, V. (2019, March 18). It Is Possible to Be Allergic to Alcohol. Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/alcohol-allergies-and-intolerances-1324211
Mayo Clinic. (2018, May 04). Alcohol intolerance. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-intolerance/symptoms-causes/syc-20369211
Mulhern, T. (2018, October 11). Why do people with East Asian heritage get flushed after drinking alcohol? Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/why-do-people-with-east-asian-heritage-get-flushed-after-drinking-alcohol-88767
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
WebMD. (n.d.). Do I Have an Allergy to Alcohol? Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/allergies/alcohol-allergy#1