Alcohol Intolerance

1 What is Alcohol Intolerance?

Alcohol intolerance refers to the adverse reactions produced by the body after the intake of alcohol.

This response occurs due to the body’s inability to digest the contents of alcohol. It results in symptoms like headache and nausea almost immediately after consumption.

The body’s intolerance occurs because of the specific content in the alcohol, such as the grains, preservatives, or certain chemicals present in the drink.

In some cases, certain underlying medical conditions may result in alcohol intolerance.

The condition may also result from an interaction between certain medications being mixed with alcohol.

One should not confuse alcohol intolerance with an allergy. However, in some cases, what may seem to be alcohol intolerance could actually be a reaction to a specific substance in the beverage, such as a chemical, preservatives, or grains. Combining alcohol with medication can also lead to certain reactions in the body.

Drinking too much alcohol places a heavy burden on an individual’s health, as well as hurts the family as a whole. It damages a person’s relationships, work life, and performance in other fields. Excessive consumption can lead to alcohol dependence and abuse, which will later contribute to a number of diseases and cause mental or behavioral disorders.

2 Symptoms

Nasal congestion and skin flushing are the two most common symptoms of alcohol intolerance. The condition may also result in:

Serious reactions to alcohol require medical attention. This is particularly important if the condition is associated with an allergy or certain medications.

The six signs that indicate alcohol intolerance are:

  1. Stomach pain: Alcohol has a vasodilatory effect on the stomach. In simple terms, this means an individual is more prone to absorb various food allergens in the system. Certain ingredients found in beer, such as wheat and gluten, may leave the stomach feeling bloated even if this has not occurred previously. If the body takes time to process all this, the person will have severe bouts of stomach pain followed by nausea or vomiting. If one is aware of such situations in the past, simply adjusting one’s alcohol consumption will keep this problem away. Try to lower the number of glasses you drink or switch to beverages that are gluten-free.
  2. Face turning red: If an individual’s face suddenly starts turning pinkish-red, it’s a clear-cut sign that something has gone wrong. The exact ingredient causing this flush will not be the same for every person. Studies reveal that one of the main ingredients to cause this issue is the protein from grapes in wine, which are combined with sulfites and other organic compounds. People who consume red wine and then experience redness in the face can link it to an allergen called LTP, which is mostly found in the skin of grapes. People consuming white wine usually won’t have intolerance since it is made without grape skins. However, one should not assume that redness in the face is linked to alcohol flush syndrome. This flush is also known as “Asian glow” and can point towards an allergy to certain ingredients in alcohol. Allergies are a more serious condition than intolerance. It starts with the glow and further extends to symptoms of dizziness and hives.
  3. Stuffy nose and itchy eyes: Drinking could trigger certain allergies not directly related to alcohol. For example, a tree nut allergy can be blamed for allergy symptoms as well. It is quite common to find nuts in alcoholic extracts or distillates. Whiskey and bourbon are sometimes fermented in tree barrels, hence, one should pay close attention to the label before consuming any drink. Histamines are also triggered in those who are intolerant due to the yeast and bacteria in alcohol. Histamines (compounds which regulate the physiological functions) tend to make the blood vessels swell and cause a runny or stuffy nose and itchiness in the eyes. Red wine is one of the main culprits of histamine production.
  4. Increased heartbeat: Some individuals complain of a rising heartbeat just after finishing a second glass of drink. This means there is something in the drink which is disturbing the body. In such cases, one should visit an allergist to get tested and identify which particular ingredient is causing the problem. Doctors say the increase in heartbeat after drinking is a common symptom of alcohol intolerance and nothing to worry about. However, if it persists for a couple of days and leads to irregular breathing, it is best to reach out to your doctor and get proper treatment.
  5. Headache: This headache is not a simple hangover headache. It is a pounding ache that occurs every time you have a drink. This is nothing to worry about since it is a common symptom of alcohol intolerance.
  6. Diarrhea: Diarrhea is also one of the common symptoms of alcohol intolerance. It is an unpleasant symptom caused by alcohol making the body absorb food allergens more easily. One should make a note of which kind of alcohol and how much of it is causing such issues. If the diarrhea grows worse and is accompanied by severe stomach cramps, consult your doctor as soon as possible.

3 Causes

The main cause of alcohol intolerance is a lack of enzymes that break down the components of alcohol.

The intolerance is inherited and is more prevalent among Asians.

Intolerance most commonly stems from the components in alcohol, such as preservatives, chemicals, grains, sulfites, or histamines.

Allergies, ailments, heredity, and certain prescription medications increase the risk of alcohol intolerance. An allergy to grains or other components of alcohol may also result in the condition.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of lymph cancer, is known to increase the chance of intolerance as well.

Disulfiram, a medication recommended for alcohol abuse, can cause an immediate reaction when taken with alcohol. 

There are also a number of factors that increase one’s chances for alcohol intolerance:

  • Individuals of Asian descent
  • Those suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Individuals with a history of food allergies, especially to grains
  • Individuals using specific types of medications, such as antibiotics or antifungal medicines.

4 Making a Diagnosis

Signs and symptoms are important in diagnosing alcohol intolerance, so be prepared to mention all details, including which drink could have caused the symptoms. The doctor will also want to know if there are any family relatives who have a food or other allergy.

During this questioning, the doctor will also conduct a physical examination to identify or exclude any other signs of medical conditions.

A skin test will also be conducted. The test will determine if one is allergic to some substance found in the alcohol, such as grains, which are commonly found in beer. In this test, the skin is pricked with a tiny amount of the suspected substance. If one is allergic to the substance being tested, the individual will develop a raised bump or some other skin reaction.

Evaluation of family history and physical examinations are also helpful in diagnosing the intolerance.

A blood test can be carried out to measure the immune system’s response to a particular substance. This checks the amount of allergy-type antibodies, known as immunoglobulin E antibodies, which would be present in the blood stream. Levels of immunoglobulins in the blood reveal the immune response to a substance. The blood sample is sent to the lab to examine the reaction to certain foods. However, these blood tests do not always show accurate results.

5 Treatment

Minor symptoms of alcohol intolerance, like itching and hives, are treated with histamines. Severe symptoms of intolerance may need more intensive medical attention.

  • Elimination diet: In such a diet, alcohol is completely eliminated to see whether or not it is the culprit behind the response. If alcohol is the cause of the reaction, reintroducing it after a few weeks of elimination may elicit the intolerance response again.
  • Other treatment methods: Avoiding alcoholic beverages is the best way to treat the reaction. With severe forms of intolerance, emergency epinephrine is recommended. This helps reduce the severity of the reaction and avoid a life-threatening situation.

6 Prevention

Avoiding alcohol is the best way to prevent alcohol intolerance. If any of its additives are causing the reaction, it is important to avoid all food materials that contain the allergic ingredient. 

7 Alternative and Homeopathic Remedies

Antim Crud, Arg-Nit, Chel, Gels, Nat-Mur, Glon, and Apis are homeopathic remedies recommended to control different symptoms of alcohol intolerance.

Vitamin C and Quercetin are often suggested to control the symptoms due to its antihistamine effect.

Butterbur and Mangosteen supplements are also used to alleviate the symptoms of intolerance.

Rashes on the skin are healed with cold compresses.

8 Lifestyle and Coping

Eliminating alcohol in the diet is the best lifestyle change to prevent alcohol intolerance. It is equally important to avoid all foods that contain the allergy-inducing ingredient. 

9 Risks and Complications

The most dreaded complication of alcohol intolerance is a severe allergic reaction, which can be life-threatening. Alcohol intolerance may also cause migraines in some people.