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In the past few decades, research has shown that our genomes are constantly evolving with the times, and with noticeable changes. In the last generation alone, a certain gene that makes people more likely to smoke cigarettes has shrunk in some populations. It's nature’s way of keeping up and protecting us against unhealthy habits, and in fact, these genetic variants now include destroying our ability to tolerate alcohol.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analysed 2500 participants’ DNA from 26 areas to identify 'genomic hotspots'. These genomic hotspots are new genetic variants that pop up in different populations that persist over time. These are genes that scientists believe are favoured by evolution and so will be more likely be passed to future generations (1).
One 'genomic hotspot' has been found in a gene called ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase). ADH is the enzyme that breaks down alcohol by metabolizing it into a compound called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic chemical and the main reason why you suffer the symptoms of a hangover the next day.
Low alcohol tolerance
Recently, it would seem, new variants in the ADH gene have been showing up in people’s genomes. These variants weaken the body’s alcohol resistance, making us feel sick very quickly after consuming just a small amount of booze (so it's not just us wondering why we're unable to consume those glasses of wine anymore!). Interestingly, so far they’ve mostly only been found in Africa and Asia, but time will show how quickly it will spread to other populations.
Effects of alcohol on the body
There are two specific genes which affect how tolerant you are to booze: ALDH2 and ADH1B. Certain variations in these genes make you much more likely to suffer from the negative effects of alcohol both in the short and long term.
The general guidelines state that you should never drink more than 5 units a day and to avoid drinking for a minimum of two consecutive days a week. However, if you’re genetically more likely to be intolerant to alcohol, you should avoid consuming excessive quantities, avoid drinking frequently, and choose drinks with a lower 'alcohol by volume' (ABV) content.
Additionally, beer drinkers should opt for light versions of common beer brands and wine lovers should opt for unfortified wines instead of port, vermouth, sherry and other fortified or dessert wines. If you prefer spirits then stick to single measures! Lower ABV spirits like gin are a better choice than higher ABV spirits like rum and vodka.
What is normal drinking?
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1. Perelman School of Medicine: https://www.med.upenn.edu/genetics/dnaseq/