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Diet & NutritionWellness

What is Alcohol Intolerance? Signs You Might Have It

6 Mins read

What is alcohol intolerance? It’s not just waking up with a particularly bad hangover when you drank too much of a specific kind of alcohol, like wine, tequila or vodka. 

Alcohol intolerance is something that causes immediate, uncomfortable reactions whenever you drink any kind of alcohol. The most common symptoms include flushing red skin, inflammation, a stuffy nose or watery eyes. 

Alcohol intolerance is usually a genetic condition – caused by the body’s inability to break down alcohol efficiently. It’s similar to conditions like lactose intolerance, caused by an inability to produce the enzymes required to break down lactose. 

So, what does having alcohol intolerance really mean, and how can it affect your life?

What is Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance is a condition caused by the body’s inability to break down alcohol. It’s rare for people today to suffer from true alcohol intolerance. 

Rather, most people discover through genetic testing that they’re intolerant to the other substances in alcohol, like rye, hops, wheat, barley, grapes, or even yeast. 

Some people, for example, have to buy gluten-free vodka (which is easy to find.)

People with alcohol intolerance have a genetic metabolic disorder. When most people ingest alcohol (with ethanol content), an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase is released to process the ethanol. The liver then converts the ethanol into acetaldehyde. ALDH2, another enzyme in the body, then converts acetaldehyde into acetic acid, which you can then remove from your body. 

If you have alcohol intolerance, the genetic mutation in your body makes ALDH2 less active, which means acetaldehyde builds up in the bloodstream. 

Symptoms of Alcohol Intolerance

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Alcohol intolerance isn’t the same as having an alcohol allergy. If you’re allergic to alcohol, even a small amount can cause serious symptoms, including anaphylaxis. Symptoms of an allergy to alcohol can include:

  • Itchy mouth, nose, or eyes
  • Eczema, hives, or itchiness in the skin
  • Swelling of the throat, face, or other body parts
  • Wheezing, nasal congestion and difficulty breathing
  • Nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting
  • Light-headedness and dizziness
  • Abdominal pain

An alcohol intolerance, on the other hand, can cause similar side effects, though often to a lesser extent. Alcohol intolerances are less likely to cause a fatal reaction. 

Some people are more likely to have alcohol intolerance than others. For instance, people of East Asian descent are more likely to have the genetic component that causes alcohol intolerance. Some research suggests that the gene change responsible for deficiencies in ALDH2 may have something to do with the domestication of rice in southern China many centuries ago

Alcohol Intolerance: Signs and Symptoms 

As mentioned above, the symptoms of alcohol intolerance are usually far less severe than the symptoms of an alcohol allergy. However, an intolerance causing acetaldehyde to build up in your bloodstream can still be dangerous. The most common symptom of alcohol intolerance is flushing in the chest, neck, and shoulders after drinking. Other symptoms include:

  • A rapid heartbeat
  • Nausea, 
  • Vomiting, 
  • Diarrhoea, 
  • Stuffy nose 
  • Throbbing headache
  • Worsening asthma
  • Fatigue

Those symptoms can feel very similar to your standard hangover, so it’s often difficult for many people to determine whether they actually have an alcohol intolerance on their own. 

If you do notice any unusual reactions in your body to alcohol, you can always go to the doctor for an alcohol intolerance test. Your doctor can place a drop of ethanol on your skin to see if you have an allergy or intolerance. 

Your Lack of Tolerance for Alcohol May Indicate Underlying Conditions

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The much more effective option is to have a genetic test to search for the genetic mutation in your metabolism which makes it less likely for you to process alcohol correctly. In some cases, the symptoms of alcohol intolerance can actually indicate the presence of another condition, such as:

  • Histamine intolerance: Histamine is a natural substance in the human body, but it also appears in a lot of fermented products -like beer and wine. Normally, the body produces an enzyme known as DOA to break this histamine down. However, if you don’t have enough DOA in your body, you may experience symptoms when drinking like red and itchy skin, abdominal pain, and nasal congestion. 
  • Sulphites intolerance: Sulphites are products added to beer and wine to limit the growth of yeast. Common sulphites include things like potassium bisulphite. If you’re intolerant to these substances, you’ll experience itchiness, and even trouble breathing after drinking.
  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma: Though rare, symptoms of pain and discomfort after drinking can be a symptom of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Many people with this condition develop enlarged lymph nodes which grow more painful after drinking. 

Alcohol Intolerance Remedy: Is There a Cure?

Unfortunately, because alcohol intolerance is a genetic (inherited) condition in most cases, there’s no direct treatment option for it. You’ll need to reduce your alcohol intake and follow the guidance of your doctor to avoid unwanted side effects. 

If you have an alcohol allergy, your doctor will often advise staying away from alcohol at all times. Because alcohol (ethanol) is often present in things like cleaning supplies and hand sanitiser, you’ll need to be extra cautious about what you use. You may also need to carry an EpiPen to deal with the potential risk of an accidental encounter.

If you have alcohol intolerance, you may need to simply restrict your alcohol consumption. 

How to Live with Alcohol Intolerance

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This means you may not need to completely cut out alcohol, even if you have an alcohol intolerance. Your doctor may also recommend:

  • Avoiding alcohol use when taking medications: Some drugs interact negatively with alcohol and make intolerance reactions more severe.
  • Antacid and antihistamine use: These medications can sometimes reduce the symptoms of alcohol intolerance. However, you shouldn’t use them to just cover up the effects of alcohol intolerance, as this could make the damage to your body in the long-term worse.
  • Staying away from tobacco: Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke could increase levels of acetaldehyde in the blood stream. This increases your risk of cancer and other serious side effects. 

If you only have a minor intolerance, you might be able to have small amounts of certain alcohols. Finding the best alcohol for alcohol intolerance is a personal process. Some people find they have more symptoms of wheezing when drinking red wine and beer, while others find that spirits like gin and vodka make stomach pain worse. 

Choose your drinks wisely, looking at products with lower amounts of alcohol when possible. 

It’s also worth reducing your exposure to other ingredients which cause intolerances, like gluten, histamine, corn, and yeast. Your genetic test will be able to advise you on which of these substances will worsen your side effects. 

When to Give Up Alcohol due to Alcohol Intolerance

If you have an alcohol intolerance – even just a mild one – the symptoms will get worse the more you drink. You might feel fine after a single glass of wine, but after a couple more, you could end up with migraines that last several hours, stomach pains, vomiting, and fever. 

Though Antacids and other medications can help to minimize the symptoms, they won’t reduce the impact that the alcohol is having on your body when it’s not able to break down properly. This is why the best alcohol intolerance remedy is to simply drink less. 

The Benefits of Drinking Less

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The good news? Drinking less is a great way to improve your diet, lose weight, lose stubborn belly fat, and even enhance your quality of life. The benefits of giving up alcohol include:

  • Better sleep quality: Research shows that drinking often leads to a disturbed night’s sleep, by influencing the REM cycle. You might fall asleep faster, but you’ll also be more likely to suffer from random periods of waking during the night, specifically during your REM and deep-sleep periods, when your body needs to recover. 
  • Better weight management: Alcohol slows down your metabolism and adds extra calories to your regular daily intake. Combine all the extra sugars and ingredients of your standard drink together, and it’s easy to see why a few drinks a night can help you pile on the pounds. Going sober could help you to get your ideal body. 
  • Improved mood: Heavy drinking really does have an impact on your mental health. Research shows that drinking too much can mess with the neurotransmitters in your brain, causing irritability and moodiness
  • Heart function improvements: Although some people swear a glass of red wine per day will help you be healthier; the reality is that most of the time – your body can do without the alcohol. When you stop drinking alcohol, your blood pressure goes down, which is better for your heart. 

Check out these major benefits of sobriety for more motivation on why living a sober lifestyle is a great option. 

Do You Have an Alcohol Intolerance?

Before you can decide whether the sober lifestyle is right for you, or whether you just need to be more cautious with your drinking, it’s important to learn what’s really going on in your body. 

Your genes are a map to a host of intolerances and potential allergies that could be influencing your life. Having a DNA test will give you a behind-the-scenes look at which intolerances could be causing your regular issues with things like stomach pains, digestive issues, chronic pain and skin problems. Once you know exactly what’s behind your intolerance issues, it’s easy to make a positive change to your life. Get your full health report by ordering your CircleDNA test today.

Rebekah Carter
32 posts

About author
Rebekah is a committed copywriter and freelance content producer with a history in the technology, marketing, and health sectors. She’s worked with leading brands around the world, and is constantly searching for new ways to expand her knowledge, and skills.
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