You’ve probably heard remarks like, “She could drink me under the table” or “He is a total lightweight”. Those comments, which come with (dubious) connotations of strength and weakness, are rooted in the concept of alcohol tolerance.
Alcohol tolerance refers to the body’s response to alcohol and the effects that alcohol has on them. A person’s tolerance to alcohol can range from high to low, and may also vary over time. There are several reasons why this happens, and thus why it seems like some people can drink endlessly without a buzz, and others feel tipsy on half a glass of wine. Gender, genetics, drinking habits, weights and health all play a role in tolerance.
But it's not clever trying to keep up with the alcohol-tolerant joneses! Being able to drink someone under the table is so commonly associated with strength, and there’s such a stigma to being a lightweight. But really, the “lightweights” are better off.
Multiple factors explain why some people’s bodies appear to handle more alcohol better than others...
Gender & Body Weight
Both gender and weight influence how an individual tolerates alcohol. Men tend to be able to drink more than women before they appear drunk. Larger people may consume more than smaller people without immediate ill effects.
Other Biological Factors
Some think it relates to the enzymes involved in metabolising the alcohol; others think there’s a varied effect on neurotransmission in the brain. In the case of the neurotransmitters, the theory is that the brains of some people with high tolerance simply aren’t receiving signals saying, “Whoa there, you should probably stop drinking”.
As for the role of enzymes, alcohol metabolism is a multi-step process. Much of the alcohol processed in the body is initially metabolised by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase to a compound called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is further metabolised by the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase. Some people are deficient in aldehyde dehydrogenase, which can lead to a buildup of acetaldehyde in the blood. This can lead to ‘flushing’ of the skin, and worsening or increased symptoms commonly associated with hangover.
The human body has the ability to adapt to increased alcohol use. This can result in more rapid metabolism of alcohol. And that, in turn, means those who drink alcohol more frequently may also appear less intoxicated than others that have consumed a similar amount of alcohol. Higher tolerance is not necessarily a good thing!
The first problem with higher alcohol tolerance is that it can give a false impression of just how drunk someone really is. Although you might think someone seems OK to drive a car or ride a bike because they’re not stumbling or slurring their words ― and they might think so, too ― that is not a sound assumption. The amount of alcohol consumed still matters.
It’s also not safe to assume that someone with high alcohol tolerance, who’s able to drink more without feeling drunk, is not going to see the long-term effects of excessive drinking.
Intolerance To Alcohol
People report swollen itchy red eyes after one glass of wine, or a cocktail, while others suffer blotchy skin, or even muscle aches. However, an allergy to alcohol doesn't really exist. Allergies are the immune system over-reacting to a harmless substance – leading to hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, a drop in blood pressure and even passing out.
But alcohol molecules are too tiny for the immune system to recognise and trigger an allergic response. Intolerances, on the other hand, could be at play. They are not triggered by an immune response but are usually to do with problems with the digestive system, where the body doesn’t process alcohol the way it should.
Some people lack an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase in the liver, which is involved in the metabolism of alcohol. This leads to a build-up of a toxic substance called acetaldehyde, which causes a host of nasty symptoms including a red, flushed face and neck, and occasionally a rapid heart rate, headache or nausea.
Specific forms of alcohol are notoriously unfriendly for people with allergies. Some types of alcohol, such as wine, can contain sulfites which can worsen allergy symptoms. Sulfites might sound sketchy, but they’re just natural by-products of wine fermentation. However, some people are sensitive to sulfites and experience symptoms like seasonal allergies when consuming them.
In several surveys, people were more likely to report allergy symptoms after drinking wine than after drinking any other alcoholic beverage. In a 2005 survey of nearly 12,000 people who experienced alcohol-induced nasal symptoms, red wine was more likely to cause symptoms than white wine.
Higher histamines in your drinks mean that you're more likely to react to an allergy trigger because you're body is already elevated. A boozy saviour could be gin and vodka, as they have lower levels of histamine, so switching from beer or wine can be a sensible move.
If you are know as a "wino" and can't live without a few glasses here and there, experiment with organic wines with no added sulphates. Avoid, Champagnes and red wines which are high in histamines, and sweet white wines that tend to have higher sulfite content.
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