Why Can T Asian Drink Alcohol
“In a study published in 2016, researchers found that people with East Asian ancestry were two and a half times as likely to carry an allele that makes them intolerant to alcohol than other ethnic groups. These findings suggest that East Asians may be predisposed to developing alcoholism because their bodies don’t metabolize alcohol the way others do. This could also explain why Asian-Americans are more prone to drinking heavily than white Americans — it’s possible the body is just not suited for moderate consumption.
“”This finding is important because it suggests that there may be a biological predisposition toward heavy drinking among certain populations,”” says Dr. Richard Lobb, associate professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School who was not involved with the research in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. “”The question now becomes what environmental factors might interact with this genetic vulnerability.””
Alcohol intolerance is caused by a lack of an enzyme called ALDH2. As its name implies, this enzyme breaks down acetaldehyde, which is produced when ethanol (aka booze) reacts with the amino acid lysine in our saliva. Acetaldehyde has been linked to all kinds of health problems ranging from nausea to hangovers, but the main culprit behind these nasty side effects is the high levels of blood pressure and heart rate it raises in your system. People with an inactive version of the gene responsible for producing ALDH2 get sick after consuming alcohol; those with active versions of the gene can drink without ill effect.
Researchers say that about 85 percent of East Asians have one or both copies of the mutated gene. That means that if you’re part of this group, your body will produce less ALDH2, making you more susceptible to alcohol’s harmful effects. So how does that happen? The scientists believe that we inherit this trait through DNA. In addition, some studies show that people with Asian heritage seem to experience changes in brain chemistry during episodes of binge drinking that make them feel drunker than they actually are. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why this happens, but theories include a deficiency in dopamine and glutamate neurotransmitters. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the body produces different responses to alcohol depending on ethnicity.
Dr. Lobb notes that while this research is interesting, it doesn’t tell us much about why Asians are more likely to become dependent drinkers. He points out that this study only looked at people with East Asian ancestry, meaning that it didn’t account for the many other racial and cultural differences between Asian countries. For example, he explains, Japanese people tend to have strong family connections, whereas Koreans often live together in large extended families. Both cultures value hard work and self-reliance, but each seems to approach this ideal in different ways.
“”These cultural factors are known to impact drinking behavior in non-Asian populations,”” says Dr. Lobb. “”But having data specific to Asian populations is critical since culture plays such a big role in determining drinking behaviors.””
That said, according to Dr. Lobb, the new study shows that the risk factor isn’t even something inherent to Asians themselves. It could very well be related to the fact that East Asians are more likely to move around the world compared to other races. Because of this movement patterns, it’s possible that East Asians may have picked up this genetic mutation through intermarriage with non-Asian peoples.
“”It’s important to note that this study did not look specifically at potential migration patterns,”” says Dr. Lobb. “”So, I think it would be premature to say that exposure to Western culture is causing this increased risk [for alcoholism]. However, there is evidence that travel itself increases risk for alcoholism, so it would certainly be reasonable to explore how international travel might contribute to this finding.””
According to Dr. Lobb, it’s possible that people with East Asian ancestry could benefit from screening for alcoholism before starting a new job or moving into a new home where members of another race will be living. If someone tests positive, then employers should consider whether accommodations like shorter hours or a break in policy regarding alcohol use should apply.
While the study doesn’t provide answers to these questions, it does point to the need for further research. And it’s clear that more needs to be done to understand how genetics influence drinking behaviors across the population.
“”I am hopeful that future research will help shed light on this issue,”” says Dr. Lobb. “”For now, however, my recommendation would be to talk to a trusted friend, loved one, or healthcare provider about any concerns you may have about your own personal history with alcohol.””
If you want to know more about how genetics affect alcohol tolerance, check out this article from Yale University.”
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