I have a low tolerance for alcohol, which became embarrassingly public on our recent beer webcast. My co-host, Bob, and I were drinking with beer archaeologist Pat McGovern and chemist and home brewer Roger Barth.
There was lots of history, culture, and science on the show, as well as actual beer. I found the conversation fascinating, and we didn’t get to talk about half the things we wanted to. But there is one moment that will stick in my memory. I had drunk half my bottle, (the others were on to their second bottle), when I almost knocked over something on the table with my beer glass and said something like, “Oops, looks like I’ve already had too much.”
After the show (and after I’d recovered from embarrassment) I got to thinking. On the show Pat had spoken about the flush reaction many ethnically Asian people suffer from after drinking alcohol—nausea, flushing of the face, pounding heart—which is caused by a mutation in an enzyme that metabolizes acetaldehyde, which is itself a byproduct of the metabolism of alcohol. When acetaldehyde builds up in the body, the symptoms appear.
I’m not Asian, but I do get the flushing and the nausea, which is why I drink so little (and the reason why my alcohol tolerance is so low). I went searching online and found an NIH webpage that discusses the gene variants, or alleles, involved in this response. On the bright side, some of these variants result in a significantly reduced risk for alcoholism. (Who wants to drink when acetaldehyde produces such nasty side effects?) It turns out that non-Asians also carry some of these variants. In fact, the NIH page includes this nugget: “Among people of Jewish descent, the ADH1B* allele is found at moderate frequencies and reduces binge drinking … and risk for alcoholism.”
So, I may have found an answer to my (lack of a) drinking problem. Of course without genetic testing I don’t know for sure whether I have a gene variant that affects how my body metabolizes alcohol and/or acetaldehyde. But I do now think that moment of embarrassment (which a friend described as a lovely moment of candor) was worth it; it led me to a fascinating intersection of health, culture, genes, and behavior.
The podcast of that show is now online (with a few judicious cuts) and it includes a visit to beer school, where Bob and I learned more about the different ingredients that end up in beers.
By Michal Meyer
(Image: Solid Comfort, 1906. A man enjoys a cigar and a beer. Library of Congress.)