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Could You Be Allergic to Alcohol—And Not Realize It?

Could You Be Allergic to Alcohol—And Not Realize It?: CSA Images/Mod Art Collection / Getty

CSA Images/Mod Art Collection / Getty

Your nose starts running after a glass of red. Or maybe certain beers trigger hangovers that hurt far out of proportion to the amount you drank. You probably don’t give these events much thought. But it’s possible—very possible, if you look at the latest research—that you have an alcohol allergy or sensitivity.

Many types of alcohol—but wine and beer in particular—contain bacteria, yeast, plant proteins, and a wide range of organic compounds, which collectively alcohol researchers refer to as “congeners.” Alone or in combination, these congeners can trigger an “allergy-like” reaction in unsuspecting drinkers, shows research from Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.

The German team surveyed close to 1,000 wine drinkers. Nearly 25 percent of those polled responded “yes” when asked if they experienced things like flushed or itchy skin, a runny nose or a racing heart after drinking wine. In particular, a grape protein called “LTP,” which is found primarily in red wine, seems to trigger an allergy-like response in a lot of drinkers, the study authors say.

That said, these reactions usually aren’t full-blown allergies. If you had a true allergy, you’d experience symptoms like breathing problems, diarrhea, vomiting (after a drink or two, not 10), or swelling of your lips, mouth, or throat, the authors say. (Basically, you’d have given up drinking a long time ago.)

While the German team focused on additives in alcohol, more research suggests a lot of people—and especially those of Asian descent—tend to grow red or flushed in response to the byproducts created when their bodies’ breakdown alcohol itself. For these people, any alcoholic beverage—congeners be damned—will cause that red-faced reaction.

Here’s the good news: If your sensitivity to certain drinks doesn’t bother you, you don’t really have to do anything about it, the German researchers says. Sure, you’re pissing off your immune system a little bit. But that doesn’t seem to be a big deal.

But if you suffer a whopper hangover after drinking IPAs, or, come to think of it, red wine always seems to make you flush, paying attention to these reactions and sticking to different forms of alcohol could make your nights out and next mornings a lot more enjoyable.

In general, white wine is less likely to trigger a reaction than red because it isn’t made using a grape’s skins, which contain a lot of those irritating proteins. Some research also indicates organic wine may contain fewer congeners than non-organic vino.

Turning to beer, it’s really about trial and error, the German researchers say. If one brand or type doesn’t agree with you, stay away from it. In terms of the hard stuff, darker liquors tend to contain more congeners than clear ones—and so may be more likely to trigger a reaction. One Brown University study found bourbon contains 37-times more congeners than vodka.

Of course, congeners impart flavor, Koob says. So if you’re a big bourbon guy and you don’t react well to one type, don’t give up on your favorite spirit. Just try others until you find one that agrees with you.

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