Over the past two weeks, I’ve received several emails from women telling me that it seemed as if they had suddenly become allergic to a glass of alcohol. One glass of wine suddenly gave Annemieke heartburn and Marja had a flushed face as if she had a severe hot flash. Ingeborg wrote that it gave her a runny nose; she had never experienced anything like it. So the question is: can you suddenly become allergic to alcohol? And, I read between the lines, is it temporary or will it pass?
A reassurance: real alcohol allergy is rare
Let me start by reassuring you; that a real alcohol allergy is rare. Only 2% of people who think they are allergic to something actually have an allergy. Usually, there is intolerance. An allergy is a violent reaction of your immune system, to a basically harmless external substance, to which your body should normally not react violently. This can cause an inflammatory response in the body. The symptoms of an alcohol allergy can be really serious; think of an increased heart rate and difficulty breathing. It is important to go to your doctor and have it tested.
With intolerance, your immune system plays no or less important role. An intolerance can (gradually) arise due to a deficiency of an enzyme to break down a certain food so that you can get similar symptoms as with an allergy. Both an intolerance and an allergy can develop over time, but again, an alcohol allergy is rare. But you can suddenly become intolerant to alcohol. An important signal from your body like all complaints.
Common complaints with an alcohol intolerance
There is a range of complaints that can arise. Every person is unique. Common complaints are:
- Itchy nose, eyes or mouth
- Rashes and itchy skin
- Swelling of the face and/or throat
- Getting red in the face
- A red or runny nose or a stuffy nose
- Getting worse from asthmatic complaints
- increased heart rate
- Stomach ache
- Breathing difficulties
- Low bloodpressure
- Nausea and vomiting
Women have significantly fewer enzymes to break down alcohol
It is often said that women are less resistant to alcohol because they are generally less weight than men. However, this is not the reason. Alcohol itself is toxic to us, but we can tolerate it if we make enough enzymes that break it down. Several enzymes are involved in the breakdown of alcohol, including ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase).
This enzyme is produced in our stomach and intestinal mucosa and in liver. However, this enzyme is produced 70% less in women in our gastric mucosa, so that we get much more alcohol in our blood. Our red wine first passes through the stomach, then ends up in the intestine, and then in our blood. Less breakdown in the stomach means more alcohol in our blood.
The alcohol that ends up in our blood is taken to the liver, where the remainder of the alcohol is broken down by ADH into acetaldehyde. (We also have less ADH in our liver than men.) This is still a toxic substance that is responsible for the hangover, among other things. Another enzyme, ALDH (aldehyde dehydrogenase) then converts this into acetic acid, which is broken down into water and carbon dioxide. In the latter, we urinate and exhale.
Is it the alcohol or is it something else?
Your body is a continuous structure that is always evolving. It is, therefore, possible, for whatever reason, that your body suddenly produces less of these necessary enzymes, causing you to have a violent reaction after drinking a glass of wine. Just like you can suddenly get pimples from eating a strawberry. However, the question is whether you are allergic or intolerant to the alcohol itself, or to something that was in your drink. Alcoholic drinks are often complex concoctions in which all kinds of things are processed.
Many alcoholic drinks contain wheat, rye, barley, hops, corn, yeast, grapes, sulfites, histamines, chemical dyes, and/or preservatives. Some of these substances are known as allergens; substances to which your immune system can react violently. It is therefore also possible that your body does not react to the alcohol but to substances in your drink.
If you know that you are intolerant or allergic to these substances (such as gluten in grains), you should be careful with alcohol. It may be that you do not react well to beer but have no problems with wine or vice versa. This is a matter of trial and error. Be aware that not all ingredients are always listed on the label. Also, consider a possible interaction between the use of medicines and alcohol. Read package inserts of medicines!
Allergies and intolerances are increasing worldwide
I do not know exact figures in the Netherlands, but worldwide there is a strong increase in allergies and intolerances. There is talk of a doubling in the past 20 years. According to the WHO, allergies are now in fourth place among chronic diseases worldwide and it is estimated that by 2050 half of the world’s population will turn out to be allergic to something. In our Western world, it is more common than in developing countries and in cities more than in rural areas.
The basis for good health starts in our intestines with a healthy, diverse intestinal flora. That is where our immune system is located and also the cause of this problem. Due to our sterile lifestyle and greatly increased hygiene, our intestines receive a less ‘rich’ intestinal flora from birth. Eating processed foods and lots of sugars maintains a too one-sided intestinal flora. Allergies are less common in societies where people eat fresh, natural foods than where processed foods are used. Finally, excessively easy use of antibiotics adds a lot to it and we are left with a vulnerable intestinal flora and an immune system that easily falls prey to allergies.
The good news is that if you take care of healthy intestinal flora, you strengthen your immune system so that intolerances and even (years-long) allergies can disappear. Click here and read more about a healthy gut.
Alcohol; stop for a month to see who’s boss in ‘house’
Let’s face it: alcohol is not good for your health. Alcohol also contains a lot of sugar, so if you think you eat and drink sugar-free but do have a glass of wine in the evening, mmmm….. As soon as alcohol enters your body, your liver has to work to make it harmless and other important functions of your liver receive less attention. A glass of wine burdens your liver and thus your hormone balance by 30% during the next 24 hours. Thereby; alcohol is highly addictive and everything we are addicted to, be it alcohol, work, sugar, or gaming, does something to us that is not healthy.
I like a glass of wine, but every now and then I consciously stop for a week or so, also to feel if I have trouble with it. I admit that at cozy dinners I sometimes find it quite difficult to drink water instead of a nice glass of Chardonnay. So I wouldn’t say it really does anything to me. Fair is fair. But it feels very good not to drink wine for a while. I really like being the boss in my ‘own house’. I’m not going to hand that over to a bottle of Chardonnay.