Can you be intolerant to alcohol?
By Maddy Biddulph
May 24, 2022
Is it possible to be intolerant to alcohol? We speak to an expert about the symptoms, causes and treatment of alcohol intolerance
If you’ve been Googling whether you might be intolerant to alcohol, it’s likely you aren’t just suffering from a bad hangover.
According to Sandra Parker, alcohol abuse coach and founder of Just The Tonic Coaching, alcohol intolerance is a genetic metabolic disorder where the body can’t break down alcohol properly. This can result in an uncomfortable reaction with symptoms ranging from redness and itchiness, to a blocked nose and nausea.
“Although we have normalized alcohol in Western society, it’s a harmful drug and there is no safe amount of alcohol to drink,” says Parker. “Alcohol creates a detrimental effect on our body in many ways, especially the brain and liver.”
When alcohol enters our system it impacts our motor skills, memory, and emotional responses. This is why even a small amount of alcohol impacts our judgment and ability to drive, while a moderate amount can impair our ability to form memories. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions making us more emotionally volatile and, over time, regular drinking has been linked to increased anxiety, low moods, and a lower attention span, according to a study published in the journal of Behavior Research and Therapy.
“It also has a negative effect on the liver, which is responsible for filtering out alcohol from the bloodstream,” Parker adds. “This can cause inflammation in the liver, making it less able to operate effectively. This can then result in scar tissue (cirrhosis) and eventually lead to liver failure. Alcohol also boosts the risk of breast cancer.”
So how common is alcohol intolerance? Data is limited, says Park, but a small 2012 study published in DA International found that about 7.2% of 4,000 participants were intolerant to wine and alcohol. In this article, we’ll explain the difference between alcohol intolerance and allergy, as well as the causes, symptoms and treatment.
ALCOHOL INTOLERANCE VS ALLERGY
If you are intolerant to alcohol, you will probably see a reaction almost immediately after having a drink. Symptoms can include redness (flushing) in the chest, neck and face, a runny or blocked nose, itchy skin, low blood pressure, nausea and vomiting and diarrhea.
“Alcohol intolerance is usually an inherited genetic condition whereby your body is unable to break down alcohol efficiently,” explains Parker. “The only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid drinking.”
In contrast, an alcohol allergy tends to be more serious, and if left untreated, can be life-threatening. Symptoms include a rash, itchy skin, swelling and crippling stomach cramps.
“The key difference between intolerance and allergy in relation to alcohol is in the severity of the reaction,” says Parker. “If you are intolerant, the symptoms will be uncomfortable whereas if you are allergic, consuming alcohol can be life-threatening. Note, an alcohol allergy is rare and should be managed in the same way as any other allergy, including avoiding alcohol completely.”
WHAT CAUSES ALCOHOL INTOLERANCE?
Alcohol intolerance happens when the body doesn’t have the right enzymes to metabolize (break down) the toxins in the alcoholic beverage. It’s caused by inherited or genetic traits that are commonly found in the Asian population, says Parker.
In some cases, what appears to be alcohol intolerance could actually be caused by an ingredient in the drink – chemicals, preservatives or grains – and some medications can also cause a reaction. If in any doubt, or if you are worried about symptoms, seek advice from your doctor.
Parker says: “Alcohol intolerance basically means that you need to restrict or avoid alcohol consumption depending on the severity of your symptoms, as your body is less able to process it.”
HOW CAN YOU TELL IF YOU’RE INTOLERANT TO ALCOHOL?
So how can you tell if you’re intolerant to alcohol? Your body will let you know.
“If you start to feel sick after drinking a small amount of alcohol, or notice your face, chest and neck becomes flushed, this can be a sign of alcohol intolerance,” says Parker.
“You can have an intolerance test carried out by your healthcare provider, known as an ethanol patch test.”
CAN YOU TREAT ALCOHOL INTOLERANCE?
While there is no cure for this condition, avoiding alcohol can help you stay symptom-free and avoid an uncomfortable reaction.
Sandra says: “As alcohol intolerance is a genetic metabolic disorder, it is something you are born with and have to learn to live with.
“An intolerance test will determine whether your intolerance is to the ethanol itself or from one of the ingredients in the alcoholic beverage such as yeast, grapes or hop. If it’s the latter, then you can avoid drinks with that ingredient, for example, you may be intolerant to beer but not wine. If it is the former, and you experience strong symptoms when drinking, then you should avoid alcohol altogether.”
She says it is also worth noting that alcohol is essentially a toxin, and over time our bodies become less able to process alcohol and our tolerance decreases, leading to more severe and longer lasting hangovers as you age, and a feeling of increased sensitivity to alcohol.
“In some cases, people may develop alcohol intolerance later in life because of the way the body responds to alcohol changes.”