Why Can’t I Drink Alcohol Anymore Without Feeling Sick? – Explained
Last updated Tuesday, November 14th, 2023
Everything You Need to Know to About Alcohol Intolerance
Does a glass of alcohol make your nose stuffy and or make your face flush? You may have a rare case of alcohol intolerance. It’s important to recognize it early and switch to a better beverage. What’s the point of consuming something that is meant to relax you, but only ends up stressing you out?
Make no mistake – your body recognizes alcohol as a toxin. But your liver helps tolerate it by metabolizing it properly. When it fails to do its job, it leads to a build-up of a chemical called acetaldehyde.
You end up paying a physical price for every drink you have. It could be a stuffy nose, flushed skin, headache, nausea, or low blood pressure. These signs make it clear that your body is getting poisoned and cannot tolerate alcohol consumption.
In this article, we’ll demystify the concept of alcohol intolerance and the factors influencing it. We’ll also cover its underlying causes and solutions to manage it.
Alcohol Intolerance Explained
Alcohol intolerance simply means that your body lacks the capacity to process alcohol correctly. So you face more side effects than pleasant ones after a drinking session.
Alcohol intolerance could lead to mild to severe effects like:
- Flushed skin
- Irregular heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Blocked or runny nose
- Breathing problems
Mild alcohol intolerance can easily be managed by limiting your drinking. However, you may have to avoid alcoholic beverages altogether if you’re suffering from severe alcohol intolerance.
It’s important to note that alcohol intolerance is not the same as alcohol allergy.
Alcohol intolerance is caused by a failure to process alcohol correctly, which causes a build-up of acetaldehyde. These elevated levels of acetaldehyde trigger the unpleasant symptoms we mentioned above.
An alcohol allergy can only happen when your body is allergic to a particular substance in an alcoholic beverage. For instance, you may be allergic to the gluten-containing grains used in beer.
You may face an allergic symptom without even ingesting certain alcoholic beverages. Mere exposure to your skin could be enough to trigger a reaction.
Alcohol allergies are caused when your body’s immune system becomes overactive and identifies a particular substance in alcohol as a threat. Your body produces antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE), which lead to an allergic reaction in your body.
This immune system agitation leads to a variety of mild to severe effects such as:
- Stuffed or runny nose
- Severe itches
Although most of these symptoms can be managed with medication, some can turn out to be life-threatening. Symptoms that obstruct your breathing patterns like a blocked nose or swelling of the tongue may require urgent medical attention. So it’s vital for you to either avoid alcohol completely or know exactly what your beverage contains to avoid any risk.
You should visit a doctor if you face any of these symptoms after being exposed to alcohol. Your doctor needs to conduct an allergy test to confirm the source of the problem. Most doctors use a skin prick test. They use a lancet to lightly prick your skin and apply a drop of the suspected allergen to this area. They will be able to make a diagnosis based on the way your skin reacts to it.
Some doctors also use oral challenge tests to confirm their diagnosis. They make you consume a small sample of the suspected allergen and observe the symptoms that follow. Blood tests may also be used to confirm it.
They know how to test your allergies in a controlled way and treat any symptoms efficiently.
You may be looking at your friends who can drink all night in despair. But high alcohol tolerance is not something to be proud of. Heavy drinkers with high tolerance are often involved in DUIs and drunk driving accidents.
They are tricked into feeling they have more physical and mental coordination than they do. So they get into risky activities like driving. It’s important to remember that high tolerance won’t affect your BAC levels. You will still be charged by police authorities if you’re over the limit.
Here are the main forms of alcohol tolerance you can face:
Functional tolerance – The brain has remarkable ways to compensate for the behavioral shifts that happen when you drink too much. If you can drink a lot without appearing to be heavily intoxicated, you may have strong functional tolerance. However, greater alcohol consumption will always lead to stronger alcohol dependence.
Acute tolerance – It reflects your short-term alcohol tolerance. It determines how much you end up drinking in a single session. Most drinkers with acute tolerance feel impaired at the beginning of their drinking session, which isn’t so noticeable as they continue drinking. This often leads to them drinking more later on to keep up their intoxication.
Environment-oriented tolerance – Your environment can also play an important role in how intoxicated you feel. Social drinkers often take their cues from the people and places they’re exposed to. They may be really comfortable at a local bar near their office where their heart rate may be more relaxed. So they’ll be able to tolerate more drinks in such a place. Bars set an environment where drinking is the norm and everyone is intoxicated to some extent. So people may not realize how drunk they are until they walk out of that environment.
Metabolic tolerance – Your liver is responsible for metabolizing alcohol in your body. When it starts adapting to metabolize it more efficiently, you’ll probably not feel intoxicated so easily anymore. It happens when a specific group of liver enzymes are activated after exposure to chronic drinking. It’s a survival mechanism to remove the toxins at a faster pace so that they don’t damage your organs. So it decreases your length of intoxication. Unfortunately, this often encourages drinkers to increase their alcohol consumption to sustain their high.
Factors Influencing Alcohol Intolerance
Here are the most important factors that influence alcohol intolerance:
Age – People who cross their college years of drinking all night quickly find out how unsustainable this party-hard lifestyle is once they cross their 30s. Your alcohol tolerance goes downhill because of the natural changes that happen when you age. For instance, your body loses muscle and water mass and gains more body fat. So your system isn’t able to dilute your blood alcohol levels so efficiently and pump it out of your system. Your organs also degenerate as you get older. So your liver has to work extra hard to process the same amount of alcohol you had when you were younger. It takes a lot longer for the liver to eliminate alcohol from your system.
Genetics – Your DNA influences the speed at which your enzymes work. People with alcohol intolerance produce weaker acetaldehyde-neutralizing enzymes. So it slows down the processing and elimination of alcohol in your body. Misalignment of these enzymes can also lead to a build-up of acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde-neutralizing enzymes are influenced by a combination of two gene variants – ADH1B and ALDH2. People of East Asian descent are more likely to have these specific gene variants, which leads to greater alcohol intolerance in their population. It’s possible this is why traditional fermented beverages in these regions have a lower alcohol percentage than the typical drinks you find in a bar.
Lifestyle – Alcohol is bad for fitness, but fitness is the perfect counter to alcohol. An individual with a clean diet and regular exercise routine can easily maintain a moderate drinking routine for most of their life. Your lifestyle choices can even influence which genes are activated in your body. Exercise stimulates circulation of the toxins in your body and pushes them out of your body’s elimination channels. Pair it up with food that helps detox your body and you’ve got an unbeatable combination. Fit people also have healthier endorphin, serotonin, and dopamine levels than inactive individuals. So they are less likely to develop emotional dependency on alcohol.
Medication – Most prescription medications explicitly warn users to avoid certain intoxicant use when they’re taking them. Emergency rooms regularly see cases of poisoning and death caused by a dangerous combination of alcohol and medication. You must consult your doctor or pharmacist before combining them.
Existing diseases – Alcohol intolerance can also be caused by certain health conditions like Hodgkin lymphoma, uterine tumors, Gilbert’s syndrome, and menopause.
Underlying Causes of Alcohol Intolerance
Yeast overgrowth like Candida can significantly compromise your immune system. Why? Because the yeast overgrowth disrupts the healthy gut bacteria responsible for keeping your immunity intact. This ends up compromising your ability to process alcohol too.
Here are the main factors that lead to yeast overgrowth:
- High sugar diets
- Heavy alcohol consumption
- High-stress lifestyle
- Heavy antibiotic consumption
Heavy drinking can change the microbe lining in your esophagus. Yeast overgrowth can be most commonly detected in the mouth, intestines, and skin.
You should know that 90 percent of your body is made up of bacterial cells. Most of them live inside your gut and carry out vital functions of the body. However, an imbalance caused by yeast overgrowth disturbs this harmony.
Your liver is your primary shield against fungal invasions like Candidiasis. It filters and eliminates any toxins that enter your system. Heavy drinking can overload it with too many toxins and sabotage its ability to eliminate Candida.
Acetaldehyde is a toxic by-product of Candida, which can poison your nervous system. It can trigger headaches and brain fog. Your liver may even lose all the nutrients and cells needed to fight off the toxins, leaving your body helpless against bacterial invasion.
Several alcoholic beverages are also packed with histamines. Your immune system naturally produces histamines. It uses these compounds to send messages between different cells. They are known for causing allergic symptoms. Histamines are most commonly found in fermented foods and drinks like beers, wines, and ciders.
Most people never face any issues processing histamines. However, they can trigger problematic symptoms in people who don’t have enough diamine oxidase enzyme. This enzyme is necessary to metabolize histamines properly.
You could suffer the following histamine-triggered alcohol intolerance reactions:
- Flushed face
- Nasal congestion
- Breathing issues
- Abdominal pain
Your doctor may recommend a course of antihistamines if they detect this issue. But you need to exercise extreme caution if you’re planning to combine them with drinking alcohol.
Popular antihistamines like Benadryl can make you drowsy, which can be a dangerous combination when mixed with a depressant like alcohol. There are several deaths tied to alcohol and antihistamine use every year. So please clarify everything you need to know with your doctor about safe antihistamine use.
Sulfites can also trigger alcohol intolerance in some people. They are usually found in beers and wines. Alcohol manufacturers add sulfites to control the fermentation process in their beverages. So sulfites help preserve the drink over time.
They can trigger allergic reactions in people who can’t process them, especially asthma patients. You may experience severe congestion that leads to coughing and breathing issues.
A popular study revealed that people who have suffered from hay fever, aspirin-exacerbated respiratory disease (AERD), or asthma are at a higher risk of developing alcohol intolerance.
The Role of Liver Function
Your liver is one of the largest vital organs in your body. It plays the role of a bodyguard that throws out all unnecessary elements from your system. Its size depends on your height and weight, but it usually weighs around three pounds in an adult.
It has a larger right lobe and a smaller left lobe. They contain several blood vessels through which the blood from your body passes. Your liver filters out the toxins and directs the waste material to be removed through the right excretory channels.
These liver lobes also contain several bile ducts that transport bile from the liver to the small intestine.
Here are the most important tasks performed by your liver:
- Eliminated toxins from your bloodstream
- Removes old red blood cells.
- Produces bile to break down food
- Metabolizes proteins, carbohydrates, and fats
- Helps support the blood clotting process
- Regulates the blood quantity circulating in your body
- Stores glycogen and vitamins
So how does your liver metabolize the alcohol when it enters your body?
Your liver produces specific enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) to process alcohol.
First, ADH transforms alcohol into a toxic substance called acetaldehyde. This substance is a known carcinogen, which is further broken down by ALDH into a less toxic chemical called acetate. Acetate is eventually broken down to carbon dioxide and water for elimination from your body.
Chronic drinking starts to wear down your liver tissue faster than it can regenerate. There’s an imbalance in the process of consumption and elimination. Your liver is not able to keep up with the growing stress of toxin accumulation, which leads to alcohol intolerance.
There are three major liver diseases caused by excess alcohol consumption:
Alcoholic fatty liver disease – This disease is an outcome of excessive fat build-up in your liver. Excessive alcohol consumption slows down the breakdown of fats in your liver. 90 percent of regular drinkers suffer from a mild to severe form of fatty liver disease. The symptoms aren’t easy to detect in the early stages. Luckily, the damage can be reversed by avoiding alcohol for several weeks to allow your liver to find a healthy balance. Severe cases may demand permanent abstinence from alcohol.
Alcoholic hepatitis – Alcohol can rapidly increase the acidity in your body, which creates an environment of chronic inflammation if you’re a heavy drinker. This triggers a condition called alcoholic hepatitis. You can reverse it by permanently avoiding alcohol along with making some lifestyle changes. Severe cases may require a liver transplant.
Alcoholic cirrhosis – Constant alcohol consumption can create excessive scar tissue in your liver, which becomes greater than the normal healthy liver tissue. This extensive fibrosis leads to the onset of alcoholic cirrhosis. It’s linked to severe health complications and often causes irreversible damage to your liver that only a transplant can fix.
Here are some of the common symptoms of liver problems to watch out for:
- Fluid build-up around your belly
- Unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Low blood pressure
- Abdominal pain
Solutions and Management
Alcohol addiction destroys lives and takes a huge toll on your loved ones if you’re battling it. You can lose your job, health, family, and even your life if your downward spiral goes out of control. We’re not lecturing you to give up alcohol completely. It’s all about being mindful of how you respond to alcohol so that you don’t have to give up anything you care about.
Moderation is the key to enjoying alcohol. If you want to improve your alcohol tolerance to enjoy it safely, you need to moderate several aspects of your life.
Here are some essential steps you must follow to improve alcohol tolerance:
- Know your limits – Limiting your alcohol consumption is one of the most effective ways to prevent damaging your system. The CDC recommends no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. A standard drink can vary depending on the kind of alcohol you’re drinking. For instance, one standard drink could be 12 ounces of beer (5 percent alcohol), 8 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol), 5 ounces of wine (12 percent alcohol), or 1.5 ounces of liquor (40 percent alcohol).
- Eat a healthy diet – High-sugar foods, unhealthy fats, processed foods, and refined carbs are a burden for your system. It’s a lot harder for your body to metabolize such foods, which ends up compromising your ability to process alcohol too. Switch to foods that promote detoxification and are easy to digest. Include more fresh produce, whole grains, and lean protein in your diet. Starting your day with a water-rich veggie juice is great for accelerating the flushing out of toxins after a night of drinking.
- Stay hydrated – Your body water content is responsible for diluting the alcohol volume in your bloodstream. Having sufficient water before or after drinking will ensure that your cells are hydrated enough to handle the alcohol content.
- Get regular exercise – Your organs need healthy circulation to function optimally. And getting daily movement to stimulate your body and mind is necessary to ensure that. You can choose any sport or workout routine that combines cardio, functional movement, and builds muscle mass. Adding a meditation routine is also a great way to minimize your stress and balance your mood throughout the day. It reduces your need to blow off stress through regular drinking.
- Check your medications – Consult your doctor or pharmacist about the safety of combining alcohol with your prescribed medications. Many of them can prove to be a deadly cocktail that could land you in the hospital.
- Get enough rest – Avoid consuming alcohol on days when you’re too fatigued or didn’t get enough sleep. Your body will struggle to process the added stress of processing alcohol on such days. It’s better to do it when you’ve had seven to eight hours of sleep.