East Asian Alcohol Intolerance Found to Be Genetic in Origin
> 4/2/2008 12:45:57 PM

Alcohol consumption remains a near-universal mode of recreation around the world. Chronic alcoholism, underage drinking, and driving under the influence serve to reinforce the often negative outcomes of alcohol use in American culture. We are not alone though in bearing the brunt of this drug's powerful influence: the human attachment to alcohol crosses virtually all demographic boundaries, and black market industries flourish even in those relatively rare areas where strictly imposed religious law forbids its purchase and consumption.

While its intoxicating properties are universal, alcohol affects drinkers differently, and a small minority have been known to respond to even small amounts with an allergy-like resistance spurring general discomfort and nausea. In extreme cases, this adverse reaction may facilitate other illnesses. Alcohol intolerance, the symptoms of which include dizziness, increased heart rate and facial redness or flushing, is a biological trait that may at times seem to cripple one's social life, but also serves as the factor most effective in preventing alcoholism. The fact that individuals of East Asian ancestry are particularly susceptible to this condition has created a long-standing suspicion that the intolerance is borne of environmental variations whose roots stretch back through hundreds of generations. Individuals of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean heritage consistently register lower levels of alcohol dependence and abuse, though various forms of alcohol retain cultural prominence in these societies.

In a development more significant for confirming the nature of the genetic difference than implying new developments in alcoholism treatment, researchers at Yale University have observed that this condition is genetic and that it gradually arose among certain East Asian gene pools (approximately 50% of the Pacific Rim Asian population are somewhat alcohol intolerant). The condition, which varies in intensity and does not necessarily affect every child of an allergic parent, stems from a dysfunction in the production of aldehyde dehydrogenase, a metabolic enzyme that facilitates the oxidization of alcohol and begins the process of converting the initially toxic substance into a more palatable form closely resembling vinegar. Because the alcohol cannot be broken down, it builds in the body and interferes with standard functions.

Researchers initially noted a heavy geographic influence in the condition's prevalence. East Asia boasts an extremely diverse population base, and statistics allowed them to trace the condition's origins to two isolated groups defined by language. Researchers cannot yet pinpoint the precise cause of this variation, but they have postulated that the mutation came about in response to some sort of wide scale change in environmental stimuli. It may, for example, have begun when the bodies of area residents adapted to resist a local virus or environmental toxin. Cultural groupings and population drift may have played a supporting role in its continued development as well. As affected peoples lived and reproduced together and their numbers spread across more varied geographical regions, the condition's influence grew as their genes became more prominent in the general population.

Asian Americans often report lower levels of alcohol and drug abuse than other demographics, but they are hardly immune to the American drinking lifestyle. Rates of alcohol abuse among Asian Americans 18-29 continue to grow at alarming rates. The presence of alcohol intolerance among the group is considerably greater than among the general population, but one cannot discount the the ability of a drink-centered culture to influence even those whose genes lead their bodies to reject it.

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