Have you ever noticed that after drinking a glass of wine or a shot of your favorite tequila that your skin becomes flushed or you get a stuffy nose? If so, you might have an intolerance to alcohol.
Read on to learn about alcohol intolerance, how it presents, and the genetics behind this condition.
What Is Alcohol Intolerance?
Your liver creates enzymes that neutralize the effects of alcohol. It starts by turning alcohol into acetaldehyde. From there, the ALDH2 enzyme neutralizes the alcohol so that it can be expunged from the body.
If you have alcohol intolerance, your liver either does not produce these enzymes quickly enough or it doesn’t produce them at all. Your body then accumulates acetaldehyde, which leads to the nausea, hives, and flushing commonly associated with alcohol intolerance.
What Causes Alcohol Intolerance?
Genetics and your DNA influence how quickly the ALDH2 enzymes in your body are produced and how quickly they work. If these enzymes work too slowly, it will take longer for alcohol to be neutralized, broken down, and removed from the body.
The enzymes your body produces may not be in sync, meaning that the enzymes that turn alcohol into acetaldehyde and the ones that neutralize the acetaldehyde may not be aligned. This will allow acetaldehyde to quickly build up.
The specific combination of ALDH2 and ADH1B gene variants that affect alcohol neutralizing enzymes are more commonly seen in people of East Asian descent. As a result, alcohol intolerance is more common in these individuals.
What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Intolerance?
Alcohol intolerance can cause uncomfortable symptoms almost immediately after drinking. While skin flushing and a stuffy nose are the most common indicators, other symptoms of alcohol intolerance include:
A fluttering of the heart
Fainting or chest pain
Headaches and hypertension
Low blood pressure
Nausea and vomiting
Red and itchy skin bumps (hives)
Swelling of the lips or tongue
Worsening of preexisting asthma conditions
If your alcohol intolerance is mild, you may simply need to avoid drinking alcohol entirely, or at the very least limit consumption to a few drinks or avoid drinking certain types of alcohol. More serious reactions may require medical care.
How Is Alcohol Intolerance Diagnosed?
Your doctor may request one of the following tests:
- Skin Test: A skin test can show if you have an allergy to something, including alcoholic beverages. The symptoms for alcohol intolerance are often confused with those for an alcohol allergy. With the skin test, doctors can determine if something like the grains in beer are causing your reaction. If you are allergic to the substance being tested for, your skin will react by developing a raised bump or causing some other skin reaction.
- Blood Test: Blood tests can measure your body’s immune response. A doctor will look for immunoglobulin E antibodies. However, these tests are not always 100% accurate.
Can Alcohol Intolerance Be Cured?
Alcohol intolerance is a genetically inherited condition, and there is unfortunately no cure known to date.
You may use medications, like antihistamine creams or pills, to minimize the facial rashes or flushing caused by alcohol intolerance. However, these medications will simply mask symptoms. They do nothing to address the root cause of the reaction.
There may be some good news on the horizon for individuals with alcohol intolerance. Researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine believe they have discovered a molecule called Alda-1 that could possibly activate the ALDH2 enzyme, which the body needs to metabolize alcohol. More research needs to be done before conclusive evidence of a cure can be presented.
What Exactly Is the ALDH2 Gene?
Alcohol is, for all intents and purposes, a poison. Thankfully, a healthy human liver can remove poisons of all sorts from the body, including alcohol. There are two liver enzymes that remove alcohol from the body.
Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) are the enzymes that affect the way your body metabolizes alcohol. These enzymes appear in several forms and can be encoded by several genes. There are several variants of the genes that encode the enzymes, giving them unique characteristics.
The ADH or ALDH enzyme people have influences their level of alcohol consumption and can impact the risk of alcoholism. The ALDH2 gene encodes an inactive ALDH enzyme. This leads to an accumulation of acetaldehyde in the bloodstream and provides a protective effect, which causes the symptoms of alcohol intolerance.
Research suggests that a person’s alcohol sensitivity depends on and is affected by genotype. The ALDH2 gene is polymorphic in East Asian individuals. It influences blood levels of acetaldehyde and post-consumption behavior. The polymorphism of ALDH2 is what causes the flush in response to alcohol use and a lowering of alcohol consumption.
Alcohol intolerance is caused by a faulty version of the ALDH2 gene. The mutated form of the gene is called ALDH22. It has little to no activity. People with the mutated ALDH22 genes can have up to 10 times the level of acetaldehyde buildup in their body in comparison to people who have a normal copy of the gene.
Nothing can prevent alcohol intolerance. The only way to avoid any reaction is to avoid alcohol entirely. You can determine your genetic predisposition to alcohol intolerance with our Nutrition DNA Testing Kit, as well as a wide range of other food reactions, nutritional needs, dietary requirements, and more.
Alcohol intolerance can increase the risk of serious health conditions if you continue to drink. Even for individuals who do not have alcohol intolerance, drinking large amounts of alcohol frequently is dangerous for their health. For this reason, if you are going to drink, do so in moderation—your body will thank you!
To order a DNA test or for more information on our genetic testing parameters, contact our team at Dynamic DNA Laboratories.