Alcohol, and its effect on people based on nationality

Awhile back, I was in attendance of a workplace “Alcohol Awareness” training session, because believe it or not, some in the service tend to imbibe a little too much. I know, it sounds crazy. Anyway, the instructor was a Chief Health Services Tech who obviously had much knowledge on the subject, and he explained the effects of alcohol as it relates to nationality. He did this in a way that I could understand, which makes him a genius in that regard. I have since forgotten much of the lesson, but here’s what I remember of his lecture:

Alcohol affects people of different nationalities (for the most part) because of (basically) when alcohol was introduced into their cultures. This is based on scientific reasons, something having to do with some type of chemical (?) levels in the body and tolerance. I wish I could remember more of the whys involved here, but this is why I’m posting this.

Some conclusions of the lecture that I remember are:

East Asians have very low tolerance of alcohol, but also have very low chances of alcoholism. They’ve had alcohol for a very long time in their history.

Native Americans have a very low tolerance, but very high chance of alcoholism, as alcohol was introduced to them fairly recently.

The Irish, due to their geographic location, were introduced to alcohol after the rest of Europe, and have a high probability of alcoholism (as compared to the rest of Europe), but also have a high tolerance.

This is about what I remember, and I know I’m missing a lot here. Anyway, he explained these observations away, with something having to do with some kind of chemical level in the body, and how tolerance, history and alcoholism are related in some way.

I realize this borders on ramblings, and for that I apologize. I wish I could remember more, but I do know that I found his lecture fascinating, if true.

So, does anyone know what the deal is with this?

I remember hearing about this; while certain Asian populations were avoiding cholera by boiling their water and making tea, certain European populations were avoiding cholera by boiling their water and making beer (not very strong beer though - it would even be given to children). The result is that the European populations developed a greater tolerance for alcohol (there is some kind of measurable metabolic difference due to the presence or absence of some enzyme or other.

The interesting thing about this is that, for the alcohol tolerance to have been selected in the European populations, individuals with the tolerance must have enjoyed greater reproductive success, even though it might have been really difficult to perceive this at the detail level, it still; had a statistical effect.

I have heard there is an emzyme which is produced in the bodies of the vast majority of Europeans, but only about 50% of east Asians, and this enzyme helps metabolise alcohol.

I have no idea if this is true or not, but my own experience with my Chinese and Vietnamese friends is indeed that roughly half of them can drink all night (or at least “keep up” with my caucasian friends), and the other half only need to look at half a jigger of light beer, and they get the dreaded “red face”.

The enzyme is called alcohol dehydrogenase.

I turn beet red after a single standard drink, but my sister can pack away the alcohol like no tommorrow. I hate genetics.

So does the effect of lower alcohol dehydrogenase on Asians effectively mean that they get drunk faster/on a smaller amount and for a longer period of time, or is there more to it than that?

Depends on which kind of “Asians” you’re talking about. Indian subcontinent types have been consuming cowsmilk and alcohol for as long as Europeans. Possibly longer. Thus, Indians have a low likelihood of lactose intolerance and are better able to process alcohol.

Thais, on the other hand, have a 98% lactose intolerance rate and have less ability to process alcohol.

Unfortunately, I got the short end of that likelihood stick, dammit.

So, if I understand correctly, alcohol dehydrogenase is an enzyme that deals with the alcohol at a molecular level. Those with alot of this stuff, can deal better with larger amounts of alcohol? And those without, can’t, and quickly develop the “red face”?

What causes this enzyme to be at one level or another in people. IOW, how does does history and race play into it?

I remember there being a very specific reason why the people who had alcohol the longest, also had the least tolerance, but at the same time, had the lowest rate of alcoholism.

I’m not sure if the enzyme is at different levels. I may be wrong on this, but I was led to believe it is either present or not present. Watching Vietnamese and Chinese folk consume alcohol, it does seem to me that it’s a “one or the other” situation. Some literally do turn beet red at a few sips of beer, and yes, these are the ones who don’t enjoy drinking and would never be prone to alcoholism. The others drink in a manner indistinguishable form Westerners from a physiological point of view, although culturally, there is a slight difference: many Asian friends of mine are quite shocked when I tell them that yes, I do usually drink every day (though that might be a relaxing beer or two after work). These guys, on the other hand, will abstain until there is a party or somesuch, and then they will drink hard and fast, with the intention of getting completely blootered. On the other hand, I’ll still have my two or three beers whether I’m out or at home. I don’t know if this cultural angle has any bearing on things.

I always thought the red face was something that came with heavy drinking over extended periods, rather than from actually being drunk…

I’m not a molecular biologist, but have dug around a bit for this before. Ethanol is produced naturally in the body as an intermediatary from the Krebs Cycle. My (limited) understanding is that about half the Asian population has a minor mutation of the enzyme that causes it to work less efficiently. The enzyme is still there, just not working very well.

Incidently, the enzyme breaks down any trace amounts of methanol in the drink (common found in poorly distilled spirits) into formaldehyde. Some people think that this is one of the causes for a hangover.

And the red face is caused by the vasco-dilatation effects of alcohol in the bloodstream. Symptoms include excessive blushing, red eyes, headaches and the formation of a small plusating vein on the victim’s temple (believe me, it’s noticable).

I’ve heard something along these lines before:

The body finds ethanol easier to break down than methanol, so the ethanol is tackled first (when you’re still blissfully intoxicated), and the methanol tends to be processed the next morning (giving you the hangover). This is cited as a reason that the “hair of the dog” technique (a drink the next morning) works as a hangover “cure”. It actually introduces some more ethanol, allowing the dreaded methanol to be processed over a longer period, resulting in a lesser hangover. As always, hangover causes and cures are a debate within a debate, and YMMV.

And come to think of it, I’m seen that pulsating vein in the temple in quite a few people.

Some asian groups have a defective* (ALDH) gene, which codes for the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH).

This enzyme is involved in the breakdown of alcohol molecules in the body. A recap - alcohol is oxidised to the aldehyde with alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) which is in turn oxidised to the acid with ALDH. The aldehyde (especially of methanol) is quite toxic, so any buildup of this intermediate metabolite can lead to symptoms such as flushing and hangover.

It seems people with this genotype are thus more susceptible to severe hangover and less likely to become alcoholic.

Defective enzyme ADH2 leads to buildup of alcohol and is also considered a protective factor in alcoholism.

It appears that native americans and caucasians do not have the protective genotype offered by the ALDH and ALD polymorphisms.

REF: Hangover symptoms in Asian Americans with variations in the aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) gene.

*polymorphism is a less loaded term, but less descriptive

It is a myth that native americans have a low tolerance to alcohol.

CITE: Am J Psychiatry. 1997 Jul;154(7):983-8.

Would that explain why vodka tends not to produce a hangover… the method of distillation?

For what its worth, vodka gives me the worst damn hangovers of all, but I can drink a few quarts of gin and barely have cottonmouth in the morning…

It’s also the case that medications may work differentially for people of different genetic backgrounds, for similar reasons. There’s starting to be a body of intersting medical literature that says, essentially, “Oops, not everyone’s body works the way our study’s sample (often white Euro males) does.”

I am printing this onto a wallet card for the next jerk who mentions Kickapoo Joy Juice to me and mine. At last! Bless you, antechinus!

I have conducted many non-scientific experiments on my friends and colleagues on this very subject. The hardest part has always been agreeing on the menu.

We have found that the majority of the hangovers have occurred when water consumption is limited throughout the intoxication period. The second-greatest contributor has been the lack of fatty or high-carb food.

Generally, I have discovered (I am 6’5", 200 lbs, White/Native American) above three drinks, I will have a hangover should my water consumption be less than 8 ounces of water per every alcohol unit consumed (1 glass of wine, 1 ounce of spirits or 12 ounces of beer).

Unlike many of my friends, I appear to be immune to the effects of mixing liquors. The only liquor that bothers me is Stolichnaya, which gives me a spinning sensation/headache almost immediately upon consumption.

Anyone have a cite for scientific studies on types of booze and hangovers?