June 7, 2021

What Causes Alcohol Intolerance

Are you one of those unlucky people who seem to have a particularly hard time drinking alcohol? Do you experience immediate (or delayed) redness after a few sips of beer or hard liquor? Heavy breathing? Body rashes? If you’re constantly experiencing symptoms that make you think you might be allergic to alcohol, you, my friend, might be suffering from an alcohol intolerance of sorts, something that is popularly known as the Asian flush or Asian glow.

After the gluten-free-frenzy, food intolerances have suddenly become a particularly hot topic. We’ve had lactose intolerance for ages, but can alcohol intolerance also be a thing?

Yes, it most certainly can, and it has to do with the way your body metabolizes alcohol. We’ve made a summary of the most important things you need to know about your possible problem with alcohol metabolism, so be sure to keep on reading.

The symptoms of alcohol intolerance

Still trying to figure out whether you’re in the right place? If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you definitely are:

  • Facial flushing
  • Body flushing
  • Rashes
  • Nasal congestion, wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Triggered asthmatic reactions
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Headaches

Although all of these symptoms sound just like the symptoms of a hangover, the key difference here is that people who are alcohol intolerant don’t have to wait to get drunk to get them. A single glass of alcohol, (or even just a couple of sips in extreme cases) can usually do the trick. If you’re an alcohol flush sufferer, it doesn’t mean that you’d get them all either. There are varying degrees of intolerance and flushing, but most of them have the same reason behind it.

The reasons behind alcohol intolerance - enzyme deficiency

So what causes alcohol intolerance? As it usually goes in the world of intolerances, the reason behind it is an enzyme. There are two enzymes the body uses to digest alcohol in the liver - alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2). The first one, ADH, breaks down the ethanol levels in your bloodstream to acetaldehyde - a toxic byproduct of alcohol digestion. The second - ALDH2 breaks down acetaldehyde into acetate. Once acetaldehyde is broken down into acetate, or acetic acid, it can be efficiently used in the process of cell metabolism - and all is well again in the human body.

The only problem is that people who are “intolerant” to alcohol usually lack the second enzyme, ALDH2, or to be more precise, have an inefficient ALDH2 gene mutation. That means that they can’t metabolize alcohol properly. The result of ALDH2 deficiency is a massive and quick acetaldehyde overload in the body, and let us tell you - acetaldehyde is no ambrosia.

It’s a highly toxic substance that’s also to blame for another violent alcohol reaction - his majesty, the hangover.

Alcohol allergy vs. alcohol intolerance

Alcohol intolerance can easily be confused with alcohol allergy, although the general consensus is that alcohol allergy is extremely rare. However, if you experience facial flushing when you drink alcohol, you might want to do an allergy test and get that out of the way before you conclude that you have a genetic condition. While it’s highly unlikely that you have an actual alcohol allergy, you still might be allergic to a particular ingredient in some alcoholic drinks, such as corn, wheat, rye or histamines.

Here’s a list of possible allergens that can be found in alcoholic drinks:

  • Sulfites or other preservatives
  • Chemicals
  • Grains
  • Histamine

Histamine allergy is particularly interesting, because people who have a lazy ALDH2 enzyme have some trouble processing histamines as well.

The byproducts of fermentation or brewing, histamines are chemicals that our bodies produce produced naturally, but they are also present in certain foods and fermented alcoholic beverages such as beer, champagne, and especially wine. When you ingest histamines and they are not properly broken down, they accumulate in the same way acetaldehyde does. The result are the same symptoms associated with ALDH2 deficiency. Unlike ALDH2 deficiency, if you are intolerant to histamines you can actually pull off drinking - you only need to steer clear of alcohol that contains high levels of histamines.

It is important to note however, that all these terms associated with intolerance to booze (allergy, asian flush, asian glow, alcohol flush, etc) are all used as synonyms, and in most cases they refer to the same thing - ALDH2 deficiency.

Having said that, as with any other health condition or risk, especially if it’s chronic, we kindly advise you to consult a medical expert before you self-diagnose yourself with anything.

Final words: is there a cure for alcohol intolerance?

The short answer (and possibly the harshest) would be to say that you need to say goodbye to drinking alcohol, ASAP. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. You probably stumbled upon this article because you wanted to learn how you can make your alcohol flush problem go away - and start enjoying alcohol the way those lucky non-flushers do.

Alcohol consumption is so ingrained in our culture that it shows no signs of stopping, even after the world learned it’s a type 1 carcinogen (acetaldehyde is, if we’re being really honest). People who suffer from alcohol intolerance have been alleviating the symptoms with over-the-counter drugs for a while now, just so they could avoid the embarrassing red flush in social occasions.

Sadly, according to the latest research, they also heighten their risk of cancer that way, because alcohol is even more deadly to those who are alcohol intolerant and keep drinking it. If you want to learn more about the condition, its symptoms and risks (including cancer), as well as methods of prevention such as cures, remedies and supplements, feel free to check out our exhaustive guide on Asian flush & Asian glow.

But if you’re searching for a cure, unfortunately, there is none. Alcohol intolerance, or Asian flush, if we are indeed talking about the kind caused by a deficient enzyme, is a genetic condition, which - you guessed it - is not that easy to fix. The closest thing you have to a cure on the market are the Sunset pills - not exactly a cure, but a supplement. When you take a couple of capsules before drinking, the pills will help your enzymes do their job properly, which will ensure that you won’t experience the reaction that is experienced with an inefficient alcohol metabolism.

In the meantime, we hope we’ve answered most of your questions, but if we haven’t - drop us a line! We’d love to get a discussion going. And don’t forget to drink moderately and safely.

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