Illustration by Kelly Campbell
Dear Fellow Lightweight,
Living with alcohol intolerance isn't an easy thing to do, is it? Think about it. In most cultures, whether we like it or not, alcohol is the unequivocal drink of choice when it comes to celebration, dating and even doing business. It underpins our general enjoyment of life, relationships, and even professional success.
That's not to say you can't enjoy life, have healthy relationships and achieve professional success without curing your alcohol intolerance. Of course, you can.
But if you are intolerant to alcohol, you'll know that sometimes it's easy to feel left out. Perhaps drinking less or even nothing at all in fear of suffering embarrassing symptoms in public like a red flushed face, hives, headache, etc.
It's natural to care about how we look. Most of us take pride in the clothes we wear, our hairstyle, skin complexion and general appearance. Especially before going out to socialise or preparing for a special occasion.
Understandably, it is frustrating for people who are intolerant to alcohol when their symptoms come in the way of all the efforts they make to look their best. Because let's face it, a blotchy and swollen red face is hardly the image you'd choose to meet someone you fancy for a date or close an important business deal.
Luckily, a basic understanding of alcohol intolerance and its various symptoms, causes and treatments, is all you need to drink normally and begin enjoying a richer personal, social and professional life.
First, let's get an important distinction out of the way...
Alcohol Intolerance is not an Allergy to Alcohol
This is an important distinction and one that needs to be made before we talk about ways to fix your intolerance to alcohol. This is because the consumption of alcohol can sometimes lead to fatal consequences for people with a real allergy to alcohol, as opposed to a mere intolerance.
Yes, fatal means death. This is serious.
Am I allergic to alcohol?
Luckily for most, a real allergy to alcohol is rare. In most cases, negative symptoms experienced after consuming alcohol are the result of a reaction to trace elements from production or to by-products that arise from the metabolism of alcohol.
In rare cases, where the allergy relates to the alcohol itself, symptoms can be very serious. They can vary from difficulty breathing to unconsciousness or even death.
The surest way to know for sure if you are allergic to alcohol or merely intolerant is to visit an allergy specialist and have yourself tested.
If you have a true alcohol allergy, even a sip of alcohol can cause symptoms. In some cases, it can even cause anaphylactic shock and death.
According to the Australiasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy's article about alcohol allergies, symptoms can include:
- itchiness of the eyes, nose or inside the mouth.
- eczema, hives or general itchiness of the skin
- swelling of the face, neck, and other body parts
- blocked nose, wheezy or restricted breathing
- abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea
- dizziness or loss of consciousness
An allergy to alcohol should never be ignored. If left untreated, it can quickly become worse. As mentioned earlier, in rare cases, severe allergic reactions can even be fatal.
Luckily, according to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, most people who think they have an alcohol allergy actually have an intolerance to trace elements in the alcohol rather than the alcohol itself.
Another common intolerance arises from a genetic enzyme deficiency that causes a sensitivity to by-products of the body's metabolism of alcohol.
Both cases fall under the much less serious classification of "alcohol intolerance".
Alcohol Intolerance Symptoms
One of the most common symptoms of an intolerance to alcohol is red facial flushing, commonly referred to as alcohol flush reaction (see image B below).
The red facial flushing shown in the woman above is not the only symptom plaguing people with an intolerance to alcohol.
Other symptoms of alcohol intolerance include:
- swelling around the eyes
- rapid heartbeat
- wheezy or restricted breathing
- pulsing headache
The onset of alcohol intolerance symptoms begins with a respiratory reaction. Most sufferers will first report minor breathing difficulties, usually accompanied by a noticeable increase in heart rate.
Approximately 20 to 30 minutes after alcohol consumption, sufferers will feel a hot or tingling sensation around the eyes, cheeks, forehead, and ears. This is soon followed by a red flushing skin reaction that lasts anywhere between 30 minutes to a few hours depending on the amount of alcohol consumed and a person's individual tolerance to alcohol.
More severe cases of intolerance can also involve migraine-like headaches that occur approximately 1 to 2 hours after alcohol consumption and last up to several hours.
Alcohol Intolerance Causes
As mentioned above, most people who think they are allergic to alcohol are actually mistaken. In the majority of cases, when someone experiences the symptoms listed above they are reacting to trace elements in alcohol or by-products of the body's metabolism of alcohol. Let's have a look at both cases:
An alcoholic beverage doesn't just contain alcohol. If it did then we'd all be in a lot of trouble after half a beer. In fact, unless you're drinking pure 100% alcohol, most alcoholic drinks will contain a mix of all sorts of potential allergens such as grape, yeast, hop, barley or wheat derived substances, natural food chemicals (such as salicylates), tannins, and various preservatives like sodium metabisulfite.
Severe reactions to alcohol consumption have been reported in people with allergies to grape proteins, yeast, hops, barley, and wheat. These reactions are arising from other ingredients in the beverage and not the alcohol itself.
By-products of metabolism
According to a study looking at racial differences in alcohol sensitivity, a large proportion of Asian drinkers and a small minority of non-Asian drinkers possess a genetic enzyme deficiency commonly referred to ALDH2 deficiency (47-85% in Orientals vs 3-29% in Caucasians).
This deficient enzyme is normally responsible for breaking down a toxic by-product of alcohol metabolism called acetaldehyde. Because of the genetic deficiency in these individuals, the acetaldehyde from alcohol makes its way into their bloodstream and causes the body to release histamines that set off one or more of the symptoms discussed above.
Colloquially referred to as the Asian flush, this genetic condition is one of the main causes of alcohol intolerance (particularly amongst Asian alcohol drinkers).
If you want to find out more about Asian alcohol intolerance, please check out our article titled: Everything you need to know about Asian flush & Asian glow.
Alcohol Intolerance Health Risks
The body is smart. Whenever it reacts negatively to external stimuli it is usually a good idea to stop consuming whatever it was that caused it (at the very least in the short term).
In the case of alcohol and the various negative symptoms discussed above, the body is very much giving us a warning sign that something is not right.
This warning has been publically reiterated by governmental bodies such as the United States Department of Health Services and the International Agency For Research On Cancer.
Both agencies have issued media released specifically warning people with genetic alcohol intolerance (i.e. Asian flush) of their heightened cancer risks from alcohol consumption.
If you want to find out more about these cancer risks, please have a read of our article titled: Debunking the Asian Flush Cancer Myth.
Alcohol Intolerance Treatment & Drugs
Most doctors will tell you that there is no treatment for alcohol intolerance and that the best thing you can do is to avoid alcohol altogether.
Whilst the second part of that statement holds some truth, the first part is indicative of a lack of up to date knowledge about developments in the field of alcohol intolerance treatments.
Back in 2007, a company called Raptor Pharmaceuticals developed a drug that claimed to tackle the symptoms of ALDH2 deficiency - i.e. the genetic alcohol intolerance.
On the road to commercialising their drug, Raptor Pharmaceutical initiated a phase IIa clinical trial for Convivia that was aimed at establishing a scientific basis for the efficacy of the treatment.
The Results demonstrated that the active ingredient in Convivia significantly reduced heart palpitations and also reduced peak acetaldehyde levels and total acetaldehyde exposure.
It is worth noting that they make no mention of its efficacy in addressing the red flushing commonly experienced on the face, neck and upper body.
From what we can tell about the Convivia release date, development of the drug has been stagnant for the most part of that last decade and doesn't appear to be getting ready for commercialization anytime soon.
Fresh on the scene, Sunset Alcohol Flush Support made a big splash by raising 300% of their initial funding within just one month of listing their first crowdfunding campaign.
An excellent natural alternative to the current lack of pharmaceutical solutions for alcohol intolerance, Sunset comes with a money back guarantee and a plethora of positive user reviews.