Five signs you are intolerant to alcohol

Worried that, as much as you love a glass of wine, it doesn’t love you back? Discover the five signs that you could be intolerant to alcohol.

As the nation returns to beer gardens and dines alfresco, much of the population’s alcohol intake has increased. According to Google trend data, the search term alcohol intolerance has seen a 753.38% uplift within the last month alone (13 March to 3 April). Such an increase reflects the UKs concerns that they are displaying signs of an intolerance post lockdown. 

In this article, health dispensary brand PureOptical explains the difference between an alcohol intolerance and an allergy, and reveals five signs to look out for that may indicate you are intolerant to alcohol.

Allergy vs intolerance 

It is estimated that 1 in 5 people suffer from an allergy. An allergic reaction is triggered by the immune system. The body’s immune system is built to defend against aggressors such as bacteria and virus however, an allergy sees it react against harmless proteins found in foods.

When an allergic reaction occurs, the immune-mediated antibody Immunoglobulin E (IgE) moves towards cells that supply stabilizing chemicals, sparking an immediate reaction in the likes of histamines. Essentially, an allergy is the immune system attempting to fight a 3rd party substance that it misinterprets as harmful.

An allergic reaction is the response of the body’s immune system, whereas an intolerance is triggered by the digestive system. An intolerance sees that the digestive system is irritated, or the body has difficulty digesting the ingredient in general. Those with an intolerance are likely able to consume small amounts of the substance they are intolerant to however, those that hold an allergy must avoid it altogether.

Essentially, an allergy to alcohol leads to the immune system going into overdrive, an intolerance means that your digestive system is unable to process it efficiently. A medically diagnosed allergy to alcohol is rare however, symptoms of an intolerance can be common. Intolerances can stem from ingredients that are commonly found in alcoholic beverages such as rye, hops, wheat, barley, or grapes. However, some symptoms indicate an intolerance to the alcohol itself.

1) You experience headaches, vomiting or a rapid heartbeat

The enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) aids in the digestion of alcohol by converting it to acetic acid, the main vinegar component in the liver. Some people hold a gene that suppresses the body’s ability to produce ALDH2 that is fully functional. When drinking alcohol, a deficiency in ALDH2 can lead to headaches, vomiting and a rapid heartbeat.

Keeping a diary of symptoms and alcohol consumed can aid in identifying the root cause of symptoms and establish whether specific alcoholic beverages are accountable or alcohol in general.

2) You react to sulphates

Widely used in wine, sulphate (sulphur dioxide) is made up of chemical compounds that are used to preserve taste and safeguard freshness. Sulphates naturally occur in many foods; however, wine makers often opt to add it into their products to prolong its shelf life.

People that believe they hold an alcohol intolerance may find that sulphate is the culprit of their negative reaction, not alcohol itself. A study revealed that its 80 participants who suffered wine induced headaches post drink suffered harsher symptoms the higher the drinks sulphate concentration.

Common reactions by those who experience a reaction to sulphate include a blocked nose, bloating and headache. Asthma sufferers can find that they have a higher likelihood than others to suffer a reaction to sulphate as the substance irritates the respiratory tract. 

If you suspect that you may be experiencing an intolerance to sulphate, limit intake. Opting for red wine is also a good option as it contains significantly lower amounts of sulphate than that of white wine.

3) You get a red face

Skin flushing is one of the most common indicators that you are intolerant to alcohol. Often, soon after drinking alcohol the skin around the face, neck and chest will become warm to touch and redness will appear. Skin redness post alcohol consumption indicates that the body is struggling to metabolise alcohol.

To metabolise alcohol, the body breaks it down into acetaldehyde. When the body cannot metabolise the alcohol as quickly as you consume it, the skins capillaries begin to dilate, and facial flushing occurs.

As severe facial flushing is a sign that the body is struggling to metabolise alcohol, drinking slowly is crucial to avoiding redness of the skin. Drinking lots of water in between alcoholic beverages will also serve as a break to the body.

4) You get cold like symptoms

Cold like symptoms such as a blocked nose or shortness of breath can suggest an alcohol intolerance. The nasal mucosa holds a great deal of capillaries that when exposed to alcohol, swelling can develop, impacting our ability to breath as the nasal swelling replicates the feeling of congestion.

5) You get hives  

Urticaria, otherwise known as hives, are red bumps that appear under the skin that are often dry and itchy. Bumps can vary in size and can rapidly appear. Hives that appear when drinking alcohol often happen as the result of acetaldehyde causing the release of histamine. The release of histamine causes inflammation of the skin as the body struggles to break down the alcohol.

If you are suffering from hives when drinking alcohol, a medical professional can provide you with an acetaldehyde or acetic allergy test that are produced to aid in the breakdown of alcohol. 

Photo by Daniel Vogel