Home Lifestyle Alcohol intolerance symptoms: How to tell if you're intolerant to alcohol

Alcohol intolerance symptoms: How to tell if you're intolerant to alcohol


Pubs and bars are back open for business, so it’s likely that Brits are about to start drinking more. Hangovers are your body’s natural response to drinking too much alcohol and people often wrongly link a bad hangover to alcohol intolerance. Is it just a bad hangover or do you have alcohol intolerance? Express.co.uk chatted to Dr Deborah Lee from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy and the experts at The York Test to find out everything you need to know.

Alcohol intolerance is caused by a reaction to the ingredients within alcoholic drinks.

Gluten, grapes, wheat and hops are all typical alcohol ingredients that trigger inflammation, and seafood proteins, egg protein and barley are less common examples.

Alcohol intolerance isn’t about how quickly you feel drunk, it’s about experiencing certain symptoms when you drink alcohol.

These symptoms tend to occur about 20 or 30 minutes after having an alcoholic beverage and can carry on for hours.

A true alcohol allergy is rare and not the same as alcohol intolerance.

Dr Lee said: “Alcohol allergy means if you come into contact with alcohol, you will experience allergic symptoms such as a skin rash, breathing difficulties, and acute anaphylaxis – shock and collapse.

“If a true alcohol allergy is diagnosed, you will need to avoid alcohol altogether, wear a Medical ID bracelet and carry an EpiPen (adrenaline pen).”

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Some people are more likely to be alcohol intolerant, Dr Lee said, because alcohol tolerance is different for each individual.

She said: “Some people are born with inherited intolerance to alcohol, as they cannot produce alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.

“After drinking alcohol, they feel very unwell with facial flushing, headaches,
diarrhoea, stomach pains and palpitations.”

You might have a specific genetic variation that means you respond to alcohol differently from others.

Dr Lee also noted that Asians and some Native Americans tend to have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase – the enzyme that breaks down alcohol – meaning alcohol stays for longer in the bloodstream.

Equally, women and people with smaller, leaner body types will get intoxicated more quickly than men or “larger, fatter people.”

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How to tell if you’re intolerant to alcohol

Taking an intolerance test (such as the York Test) can help you to understand what you’re intolerant to.

The York Test site explains: “It may be that it is ingredients within certain drinks that are causing you discomfort and other beverages may be okay for you to consume.

“If you suffer from what you think might be an alcohol intolerance, it is important to understand which ingredient of the drink is causing you issues (is it the gluten? Or the fruit?).

“With this knowledge, you can choose alternatives to help you avoid the symptoms of alcohol intolerance.”

All you need to do is order an intolerance test (such as the Premium Food Intolerance Test, £199, YorkTest.com), take the finger prick blood test and send your sample of two to three drops of blood to the lab.

You’ll get your results online within five days and can then discuss them with a nutritional therapist as part of the cost.

I’m not intolerant to alcohol, so why are my hangovers so bad recently?

The reason you’re experiencing dreadful handovers recently could be down to how little alcohol you have been drinking throughout the pandemic, and one recent cross-sectional survey found that 13 percent of people are drinking less.

Alcohol tolerance can change over time and when you drink alcohol regularly your body gradually becomes tolerant to the effects of alcohol and over time you will find you need to drink larger quantities of alcohol to get the same effect.

Dr Lee explained: “The reverse is also true, if you don’t drink for a long time, your alcohol tolerance will reduce.

“When you do start drinking alcohol again, you will find you will feel the effects of alcohol after drinking only a small amount – perhaps a couple of glasses.”

It makes sense that if you didn’t drink much during the lockdown and you’re now starting to go out for a few pints or cocktails with friends, you’ll be feeling the effects much more.

Dr Lee added: “If you didn’t drink much at all during lockdown you may be surprised at how little you can drink compared to how you used to without feeling rather worse for wear.”


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