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dnaMD- Your Genes & Alcohol

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Ever noticed how some of your friends can consume several alcoholic beverages without a hangover or ill effects? But others can get flushed and uncomfortable after just one drink?

This is because your genes actually determine how your body metabolizes and reacts to alcohol. There are even genes linked to an increased risk of alcohol dependence and more severe hangovers. To avoid the negative effects of alcohol, it is necessary that you drink as your genes intend!

genes, alcohol, drinking, genetics

Alcohol 101:

Consumed in low amounts, up to one drink per day for non pregnant women and 2 drinks per day for men, alcohol has actually been found to have some beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. But excessive use of alcohol is linked to many serious physical, psychological, and social problems.

Beyond alcohol abuse disorders, excessive alcohol use can negatively impact many other diseases, such as cancers of the upper GI tract and liver, cardiovascular diseases, breast cancer, and diabetes. The World Health Organization Status on Alcohol and Health and the Global Burden of Disease Study of 2010 both list alcohol as the 3rd leading risk factor for death and disabilities. The WHO estimates that alcohol causes 2.5 million deaths per year.

But not everyone consumes and metabolizes alcohol the same way. Genes that regulate how you process alcohol are essential in determining your reactions and risk factors from drinking alcohol.

How the body processes alcohol:

Immediately after consuming alcohol, the liquid flows into the small intestines. Most of the alcohol is then absorbed through the small intestine, where it flows through a large blood vessel to the liver. Once in the liver, two different enzymes, alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), begin to break apart the alcohol molecules so they can be removed from the body.

These two enzymes work to convert ethanol into acetaldehyde, a toxic intermediate and carcinogen, and remove it from the body. If the liver is quickly metabolizing the alcohol, acetaldehyde will remain in the body for a short time. However, some genetic variants can hinder or slow this process. The correlating ADH gene will determine how your body converts alcohol to acetaldehyde, some variants are linked to a higher risk of alcohol dependence. But other variants of the gene that quickly metabolizes alcohol can reduce hangovers. The correlating ALDH gene regulates how quickly your body removes acetaldehyde, some variants are linked to alcoholism. However, other variants are linked to unpleasant side effects of the slow metabolism of acetaldehyde, such as discomfort and nausea.

Genes associated with alcohol:

The two most thoroughly examined genes relating to alcohol metabolism are ALDH and ADH. As described above, both genes work to remove alcohol from the body and can impact how your body reacts to alcohol.

ADH1B codes for the protein alcohol dehydrogenase 1 beta which is one of the proteins needed to convert ethanol into acetaldehyde which is the toxic intermediate. The risk variant of this gene causes the protein to be eighty times faster than the regular protein causing a much quicker production, and therefore a buildup, of acetaldehyde. Individuals with this allele have more impaired cognition and feel worse after drinking alcohol.

ALDH2 codes for the protein aldehyde dehydrogenase II which is responsible for processing the toxic acetaldehyde into a nontoxic acetate. Without this gene functioning properly individuals will have a dangerous accumulation of acetaldehyde which can cause a red face due to skin flushing, headaches, dizziness, heart palpitations, and has been linked to increased development of esophageal, head, and neck cancers.

The risk variant is more commonly found in East Asian populations, but regardless of your ancestry, it's important to know which variation you carry. There are steps that can be taken to reduce the effects of the risk allele such as decreasing consumption of alcohol, and, if you’re homozygous for the gene, taking sulforaphane will help with detoxification by up regulating the amount of protein made by the gene.

There are several other, less-studied genes that are also associated with how your body processes alcohol and your risk of developing a dependence.

  • DRD2- This gene was first associated with alcoholism in 1990. A study in Sweden found that for people with the A1 allele of this gene, their risk of developing alcoholism was dramatically higher. The DRD2 gene decreases dopamine which is the reward center of the brain. For many, alcohol will spike dopamine which increases the risk of addiction.

  • CYP2E1- This gene determines how alcohol is metabolized in the brain. The University of North Caroline led a study that determined participants with variants of the CYP2E1 had either a higher or lower tolerance to alcohol.

What alcohol should you be drinking?

If you know your genetic disposition to alcohol and are ready to have a drink, you may be wondering what kind of alcohol to consume. Multiple studies have proved that red wine is the only alcoholic drink that comes with health benefits, including reducing your risk of heart disease, relieving stress, support memory, and can be good for your teeth!

However, to reap these benefits from wine, it's essential that you are drinking organic wine! Organic wine is higher in antioxidants, fermented nutrients, and is never exposed to additives or toxic herbicides and pesticides. To read more about the differences in conventional and organic wine, click here.

Every now and then, Dr. Johnson sits down to have a nice glass of red wine to destress after a long day. Dr. J's favorite red wines come from Dry Farm Wines. Dry Farm Wines are not your typical Natural and organic wine producer; Dry Farm Wines Farms works with small farmers who grow their grapes organically. Dry Farm Wines also only use growers who dry farm- meaning they do not irrigate their vineyard, instead of letting the vines find their natural water source. Dry farmed grapes are higher in resveratrol, a polyphenol found in the skin of red grapes that gives red wine its antioxidant properties in protecting against cancer and heart disease. Grapes that are produced via dry farming have the highest rates of resveratrol, giving the red wine its beneficial component. Dry Farm Wines are all sugar-free, no additives, natural yeast, and have lower levels of alcohol (meaning less sugar) and lower levels of sulfites (meaning less risk of a hangover).

Dry Farm Wines is a natural wine subscription service. You receive 6-12 wines sourced from small farms around the world. Every bottle is lab-tested to be sugar-free, low in sulfites, and under 12.5% alc/vol. Each shipment includes a variety of varietals, countries, and styles. Click here to get our Dry Farm Wines link.

Determining if your genes are conducive or not to alcohol consumption is essential for reaching optimal health! The only way to truly know the proper amount of alcohol to incorporate into your diet is to undergo a nutrigenomics test. To learn more about nutrigenomics at the Johnson Center, click here.

Through DNA testing, we can precisely identify the patterns and imbalances of your unique metabolism and use nutrients to suppress the expression of disease, illness, and other unhealthy patterns. If you're interested in genomic testing, click here to learn more! Or contact our office at

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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