How to Know If You Have an Alcohol Intolerance

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What do milk, eggs, nuts, and strawberries have in common? They’re among the most common food allergies globally, with reactions ranging from mere itchiness to severe anaphylactic shock. Interestingly, the Orange County Healthcare Agency’s 2012 study spotlighted the prevalence of alcohol misuse across all demographics. This underscores the importance of understanding our bodies’ reactions to various substances, including alcohol. At Tres Vistas Recovery, we offer comprehensive outpatient treatment for individuals grappling with substance use disorders.

Could it be possible that you or someone you know is allergic or, more commonly, intolerant to alcohol? Yes, that beer or other alcoholic beverage you enjoyed just an hour ago might be the culprit behind that incessant itch or the warm flush on your face, an indicator of an alcohol flush reaction. If you’re pondering whether you have alcohol intolerance or perhaps an issue with alcohol metabolism—making it a challenge for your body to effectively break down and assimilate alcohol—continue reading to gain more insights.

Alcohol Intolerance vs. Allergy

Alcohol allergies and alcohol intolerances are not the same, though many people confuse the terms. An allergy is usually more severe than an intolerance, but neither has pleasant symptoms.

When someone has an alcohol allergy, they’re usually allergic to one of the ingredients used in the beverage, like grains or acetaldehyde, a common byproduct of alcohol metabolism. That could be wheat, grains, hops, juniper, or potatoes.

Their body sees this substance, whatever it is, as an immune threat and treats it like any other virus or bacteria. This can trigger an allergic reaction. It tries to get rid of it in any way possible, sometimes leading to an adverse reaction.

Allergic reactions differ between people, but the throat can swell, killing the person by not allowing them to breathe.

An actual alcohol allergy is rare – much rarer than being allergic to dairy or peanuts. Suppose you have issues digesting alcohol or have symptoms after drinking alcohol. In that case, you are more likely to have alcohol intolerance, which can be related to problems with alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body. Another potential factor could be an ALDH2 deficiency, a genetic factor that affects alcohol metabolism.

Alcohol Intolerance – What is it?

Alcohol is not an accessible substance for your body to digest. Even though it’s a popular alcoholic beverage, it’s a toxin according to your kidneys and liver and is rich in sugars. The body’s reaction to alcohol and its byproducts can also be seen as an adverse reaction in some individuals.

One of the primary ways your body processes (tries to get rid of) alcohol is by utilizing an enzyme called Aldehyde dehydrogenase, known as the ALDH2 enzyme. This enzyme takes the alcohol and, though this explanation is an over-simplification, converts it into acetic acid – a vinegar-like substance. This is a vital step in alcohol metabolism.

Not everyone has the same version of ALDH2 in their bodies. A variation at the genetic level makes it less effective at carrying out its purpose, and this inefficiency is often the underlying cause of alcohol intolerance.

Alcohol intolerance isn’t just about being unable to handle the ingredients in the alcohol or allergic reactions to them. It’s fundamentally about your body’s inability to convert the alcohol into a more easily processable chemical efficiently.

Unless you’ve undergone genetic testing, it’s challenging to discern if you possess the gene variant responsible for this. Instead of resorting to expensive tests, observe the symptoms you manifest after drinking alcohol.

Symptoms of ALDH2 Deficiency-based Alcohol Intolerance

  • Red, hot face after drinking
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat

If you discern any of these symptoms after consuming a modest quantity of alcohol (as overindulgence will cause nausea in almost anyone), you might be grappling with alcohol intolerance.

Histamine Intolerance

Wines, beers, and other alcoholic beverages often have substantial histamine content. Histamines are compounds your body produces naturally and accumulate over time, especially in aged drinks or foods, akin to wine and matured cheeses.

While most individuals can efficiently process histamines, for others, they induce problems. Individuals who grapple with histamines might have insufficient amounts of the enzyme DAO or diamine oxidase.

Deprived of adequate DAO to metabolize the histamines in wine, beer, and fermented foods, one might undergo an allergic reaction or what some might term an alcohol flush reaction.

Symptoms of histamine-induced alcohol intolerance reactions encompass:

  • Red, hot face
  • Itchy skin
  • Congestion
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach discomforts

If you suspect a histamine-based intolerance reaction, there are antihistamines available to facilitate your body in processing the histamines already present in your system. If you’ve consumed multiple drinks, ensure you opt for non-drowsy histamines and abstain from further drinking alcohol for the remainder of your evening.

Benadryl, a frequently employed antihistamine, induces drowsiness and is not recommended in conjunction with any amount of alcohol consumption.

Intolerance Of Sulfites

Another ingredient often found in alcoholic beverages like beer and wine is sulfites. Sulfites are additives that beverage makers introduce to the concoction to inhibit the natural yeast from further fermentation, ensuring the drink retains its freshness over time.

While the majority seamlessly process them, for some, sulfites are troublesome, especially leading to adverse reactions. They’re challenging for those with asthma or other respiratory complications. Allergic reactions to sulfates & sulfites can mirror asthma episodes, manifesting as coughing and breathing difficulties.

Red wine, known for its rich palette and depth, contains the highest concentration of sulfates. It’s often through this beverage that many unveil their sulfite-based alcohol intolerance.

How To Treat Alcohol Intolerance

There’s no comprehensive remedy for alcohol intolerance. The most pragmatic strategy remains to abstain from drinking alcohol altogether. For some, avoiding wine or beer suffices, but others might need to eschew it entirely from their lifestyle. If you or someone else grapples with alcohol intolerance and struggles with abusing this substance, we are here to help. Our outpatient rehab in San Juan Capistrano offers a partial hospitalization program (PHP) and an intensive outpatient program (IOP).

We also offer medication-assisted treatment for alcohol abuse, aiming to cleanse the body of toxins and mitigate reactions to alcohol intolerance. This process also endeavors to make the withdrawal phase less arduous. For those in need of extensive care, our outpatient rehab stands ready to assist. We accept a range of insurance plans, and our team of professionals is here to ensure you or a loved one obtain comprehensive substance abuse treatment.

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