Whilst most of us have felt somewhat the worse for wear the day after a few drinks, is it possible that not only are you suffering from a hangover but you are actually allergic to alcohol? I for one know this feeling and always pop an antihistamine at bedtime the night before the morning after. Others tell me of symptoms like coming out in a rash if they drink a certain brand of beer, so what’s going on?
The truth of the matter is yes, you can be allergic to alcohol. However, this is very rare and the symptoms most people assume are an allergy to alcohol are in fact an intolerance, usually not to the alcohol itself, but one of the ingredients in the drink. True alcohol allergies are most often inherited and even a tiny amount can cause a severe reaction.
One common form of alcohol intolerance is known as the alcohol flush reaction and is particularly common in people of East Asian descent. It is caused by the lack of a gene involved in breaking down the alcohol which results in a flushing of the face neck and in some cases the whole body.
As mentioned, the adverse reaction some people have to alcoholic beverages is often due to the ingredients, not the alcohol itself. These include various grains, grapes and some more unexpected such as seafood proteins. Allergies may even be caused by the chemicals used to grow the grapes.
Worst alcoholic drinks for adverse reactions:
- Red wine
- Other wines
It is likely that the problems caused by red wine are due to the presence of the chemical histamine. This is the primary messenger chemical in allergic reactions so it isn’t hard to imagine why this can cause flushing, runny nose, headaches, stomach problems or even asthma – particularly in people who can’t effectively breakdown the histamine in their system.
The yeast used in brewing processes is also a common allergen and it is possible that this could set off an allergic reaction from, for example, beer. As a rule though, most of the yeast allergens appear to get broken down in the brewing process.
In common with any modern processed food or drink alcoholic drinks will have various artificial additives. Amongst the most common are sulphites (or sulfites) are found in a wide range of alcoholic drinks and are used as a preservative. Generally speaking white wine contains the most of these metabisulphites and the levels are higher in cask wine than bottled. Asthma suffers in particular are affected by sulphites with anywhere between 10% and 30% of sufferers experiencing symptoms such as wheezing.
So, as you can see, whilst allergies to alcohol do exist it is far more common that it is an intolerance to one of the common, or less expected, ingredients in the drink. That is not to say the effects of these cannot be severe; like other food allergies, a reaction to something in an alcoholic drink may result in a serious reaction, even anaphylaxis. However, the majority of adverse effects are much milder and more subtle.
Given alcohol is technically a toxin separating and pinning the cause of any unpleasant reactions is always going to be a challenge. If you feel you are suffering disproportionately from drinking it is worth making a note of which drinks affect you worst. If it is all alcoholic drinks then maybe it is just the toxins in alcohol or equally likely it is the alcohol making an existing condition worse – it is known that drinking can increase sensitivity to certain allergies.
Provided the reaction to alcohol is not severe it is going to be up to an individual to decide whether the unpleasant effects of alcohol are worth it and try and work out a strategy that will mitigate any effects that make an already unpleasant hangover, any worse.