Why Indians are alcoholics and Asians can’t drink

When Asians don't hold their liquor as well it's probably because of their genes.

When Asians don’t hold their liquor very well it’s probably because of their genes.

A bit of a controversial post for some perhaps, but we’re gonna take a look at the genetic differences between races in relation to alcohol. The idea came up when reading an article on Mayas (Indians in central America) and how they showed higher rates of alcoholism. Another good example are the native Australians, the Aboriginals. Now a friend once told me about a teacher who told him there is no such thing as different races. Well, tell that to the thousands of white runners following a few Kenyans in a marathon. Of course there are differences. And not all are as clear to see as a skin color or the shape of the eyes (not to mention other body parts). Let’s check out the racial differences where it comes to the use of alcohol.

So let’s start with the alcoholism part. How come native Americans and Aboriginals are in general more likely to get hooked on booze? It’s all because their bodies usually break down ethanol into water and acid way slower than the other races. Let’s first describe this process. When you drink alcoholic drinks the ethanol is metabolized (transformed) into something called acetaldehyde. This is being done by an enzyme in your body called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). So the more ADH your body produces, the faster the process. Apparently a lot of Native Americans miss out on this enzyme (according to analysis on chromosome 4 and 11) and that increases the risk of becoming alcoholic.

Unlike the American Indians the Chinese and Japanese produce a lot of ADH. 85% of their population produces unusual high activities of this enzyme. Where Caucasians score less than 21%, African Americans less than 10% and Native Americans as well as Asian Indians 0%. These numbers and further explanation can be found in the book Casarett & Doull’s Toxicology: The basic Science of Poison by Curtis D. Klaassen.

Now don’t jump to any conclusions that Asians are great drinkers. Because the metabolizing isn’t quite done yet. The acetaldehyde that originated after the first step still isn’t the acetic acid and water it’s supposed to be. This process is caused by another enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH 2). Now about half of the Chinese and Japanese (Koreans way less by the way) lack the normal amount of this second enzyme. The result is that in many cases the acetaldehyde builds up very fast when Asians start drinking. First of all because of the big amount of ADH and second because of the lack of ALDH 2. This is very unfortunate since acetaldehyde makes you way more sick than ethanol itself. This genetic disadvantage is the reason that a lot of Asians can’t hold their liquor. A clear sign of a high acetaldehyde-level is that the face turns extremely red.

Of course these are just generalizations. For sure there are plenty of small Asians that would outdrink any big guy and not every Indian is destined to become an alcoholic when he hits the booze. However this genetic differences between races should not be ignored. And of course it’s very interesting to find out why they are here. A common assumption that Native Americans lack a sufficient amount of ADH is that they weren’t exposed to alcohol until the Europeans introduced it. Just like the Aboriginals never tried it before Australia was discovered.

At least for the Indians in America this “alcohol evolution theory” seems off target. The Mayas drunk a corn drink called atole and balché, which is made out of honey. Aztecs had pulque, distracted from the agave plant and Inca’s also had their corn drink: chicha. All way before any European ever set foot on their continent. So this theory might work on the Native Americans in the United States or the Aboriginals, but definitely not everywhere.

There is still more research to be done about why the metabolism of certain races is different. And maybe even a solution can be found to optimize the alcohol related fun for everyone. I mean White people run the highest risk for skin cancer, while Blacks suffer most from prostate cancer and we’re looking for cures for that too right? So let’s not be racist and help the Indians and Asians too.

Micky Bumbar

Also check out why Jews in general drink very little alcohol.


Other posts on LOTD you might like:

Story of San Simon, the Guatemalan saint who loves drinking

Why alcohol can make women clingy and men unfaithful

Why smoking and drinking go so well together

More scientific posts about alcohol

Recipes for hangover cures from all over the world

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83 thoughts on “Why Indians are alcoholics and Asians can’t drink

      • Lordsofthedrinks,

        Do you have any information on as to why Koreans seem to generally be such better drinkers than their Chinese and Japanese counterparts? As you stated in the article, this is down to the difference in acetaldehyde dehydrogenase 2 enzyme levels, but why are those levels so different?

        My best guess would be that Korean’s have historically been drinking alcohol longer than China and Japan, but I have no factual evidence to support that. Any ideas?

      • Dear Rambler,
        I honestly can’t tell where this difference comes from. But I know for a fact that also Chinese and Japanese have a drinking culture for many centuries. Couldn’t find any theories on the matter so far, but I am quite curious myself too.

    • cool topic–but not all alcohol is alike. Booze made from roots is common in South America; I lived with a tribe there for two years. We women gathered round a bucket half full of water, chewed on cassava root cakes till the starch changed to sugar, and spit into the bucket. Result after letting it sit 12 hours: chunky beer. After three weeks: chunky white lightning. Only women’s spit tastes good, they say.

  1. Apache made twizin and drank it to excess. Thank you for tackling this controversial subject as it is a pet peeve of mine that the white man is blamed for every problem of every race. When will people realize we’re all messed up?

      • Except Shane MacGowan formally of the Pogues. he’s a bit scary looking as far as drinkers go and I can’t understand a word he says when he’s drunk which would be awkward—though he’s written some good songs.

      • But white people are to blame for everything shitty in this world, Middlemay Farm. No matter how much it pissses you off, its true. It is whitemans fault, your white ancestors did bring the alcohol to our land in the first place. Your white ancestors came over and ripped our culture apart, all in the name of god. We were called sinners because we didnt build churches or read the bible. Now look at north america. Faggots are everywhere, which is a sin. Abortions gambling adultery divorce etcetra etcetra the list goes on. Our everything was destroyed, all for nothing. What a fucking joke. One of my pet peeves mrs white lady, is that every race has their own country, but all we have are small reserves.

        Oh and another peeve, Every white person says oh im irish, im english, scandinavian , italian etc. Ya proove it. Youre just a bunch of heinz 57 mutts. Im native and I know who i am 100%.

        No we are not all messed up, just you.

      • Well somebody has a bit of a temper… Have you considered anger management son? Personally I have never set foot on American soil but sure… All white people are the same. You show yourself just as intolerant as some of the white immigrants a few centuries ago.

  2. Not only the races you mention, but all peoples who came across the Siberia/Alaska land bridge have the same problem, right down to South America Indians and the peoples of the Altiplano; and back across the Pacific to New Zealand where the Maori, who migrated from SA via Easter Island, have the same problem.


    • Ah yeah… This is interesting! I saw a documentary on Discovery Chanel about the “invisable” continent of the island people. How they traveled so many miles in small boats. Very interesting!

  3. I’m glad you wrote about this. Not PC for sure, and super-scientific. I wonder if some of this might apply to your garden-variety white person who has a tendency toward alcholism. Why can I take it or leave it and my cousin does not dare even taste it?

    • Good question… It’s probably also genetic. Just because you’re family doesn’t mean you are exactly the same of course. No matter what race you are there is always a chance you are genetically more likely to become alcoholic or you can’t handle it.

  4. To add data to the set, my father and his mother are terrible alcoholics; when they start drinking, it doesn’t stop until they’re sloshed. The father is bad enough that he probably buys a large pack nightly (doesn’t always tell us) though he has periods he’ll stop his nightly routine. I’ve downed a bottle of white Zinfandel and felt slightly buzzed before, and couldn’t see why people would keep going (except for good taste, which ordinary American beer has no–according even to the family which can’t stop downing it). A landlord I helped a lot (older genteman) couldn’t figure out and once shouted, “WHY CAN’T I GET YOU DRUNK!!!!” I’m also about 1/8th Native to this continent, though a mix of various tribes (“The Five Civilized”)…go figure. And just to heighten our cultural and vocabularic awareness, or for the science wonks who ordinarily wouldn’t care, the theological term for “we’re all screwed up” is total/depravity. (Though it has a precise meaning for being TRULY SCREWED up to the tiniest detail.) :) Great post: I think I’ll send it to my half-native step-sister to get her ranting about the family on reservation.

  5. interesting… i dont agree with the race thing because different ethnic groups exist, and they adapt over millennia to environmental factors, but yes, the chemical process of alcohol is interesting :)

  6. Not really sure I see the controversy in this post, it’s stating facts.

    The controversy to me would be to discuss how a lot of Indians became alcoholic after their world got turned upside down after its invasion.

    I lived in Canada for a couple of years and was really unimpressed by the whole Native Indian situation and prejudices I saw there, even less impressed by most “Canadians”‘s refusal to admit how they played a part of the downfall of that nation and happily washing their hands of the problem they created :-(

    • Well the controverse is that some people are not willing to accept differences between races, probably afraid it will be used for racism. Some even believe that there shouldn’t be any research in racial differences. We believe that’s stupid.
      Besides the fact that it’s mighty interesting stuff to us where alcohol is involved, in many other cases it seems essential info to take on various kinds of cancer for example.

    • Well… Me, myself I didn’t know about racial differences in alcohol metabolism until reading an article on Maya’s. I think a lot of people in Europe are unaware of this. Maybe in Canada, the US and further south it’s more well known.
      Before I just thought it was a bit of an old Western-stereotype that a lot of Indians were alcoholics.

  7. It is a stereotype, Indians are not alcoholics, what happened to them made them. Maybe you’ll learn more about that during your research too :-)

    • Well I do believe that them losing their lands and the new lifestyle put upon them confused them and made them reach for the bottle. In many Eastern European countries we see the same. People brainwashed by communism were totally lost when the iron curtain fell. This is only human.
      So if I understand you correct you think that we now still notice the genetic effect of the reach for alcohol by Indians in the past. It came evolutionary as it were.
      This is an interesting theory that is backed up by Indians in Latin America and Aboriginals too.
      However: among blacks this problem does not appear. Not in former colonized Africa and not among progeny of slaves in America.

      • “Confused” them? I would personally use the term “destroy”. If you are interested in what happened, do a bit of research and you will soon learn a bit more how the invasion affected the Native Indians, at least in Canada. There are big movements there too these days, check out Idle No More for instance, all very positive. They are starting to fight back, peacefully. And the best part of it? They are not doing it for money, but to protect their land and water, which the white man is making a mess of, of course (and it’s all about money for the white man, stuff the consequences). But I digress..

        I believe what turned them to drinking was the fact that they were stripped from their lifestyle and identity, eventually segregated on to “reserves”, and money thrown at them as a sorry…lots of money. So what does someone with nothing to do, no sense of purpose, introduced to “real alcohol” and lots of money does? Yes, as you said, they get drunk (not all thankfully) and as their genetics didn’t prepare them for it, it gets messy.

        Sorry, I’m not sure I understand what you mean about the genetic effect of the reach of alcohol, and evolutionary theory. Can you explain please so I may check if what I was saying suggested this?

      • Ahhhh I thought you meant that their different genetic disadvantage was created after the white men came. But the story above is really clear.
        I will indeed look into this subject some more. Since I see that human kind is on a straight way to screwing up the planet in no-time. We can probably learn a lot from the native Americans.

  8. I find it interesting you mentioned red faces. I’ve studied allergic reactions for years and one of the signs of an allergic reaction say to corn or wheat sometimes manifests in a red face. Other indications are dark circles under the eyes, as well as other reactions. Might this play a part? For more information on this check out the book “Is This Your Child?” by Dr. Doris Rapp. She once told me, “I should have named this Is This You? because adults manifest the same reactions as children.
    Thanks for the like, by the way, to my site FamilyFavoritesFromTheHeartland.wordpress.com

    • Hmmm well… I’m not a scientist myself. I just collected the information presented here. I can not rule out that some people turning red from beer are suffering from an alergic reaction, but in general I think it’s the high acetaldehyde-level.
      Thanks a lot for your contribution! :D

  9. Interesting post!

    I think the scientists who say there are no races mean: the differences in populations that we categorize as different races do not necessarily corresponding to different genomes. Two people might be said to be of “different races” in ordinary language while sharing more genetic similarities than two other individuals of the “same race”. So it makes more sense to speak of various populations than to try to talk about the overly large categories of “race,” like “whites” and “blacks,” which are social, not biological, categories.

    • Hmmm could be. I think this is more because some people are afraid of certain terms cause they think it encourages discrimination or something.
      But that’s besides the issue. Whatever word we use I think these differences among humans are interesting and fun to learn more about.

    • Thanks a lot! Yeah it’s a thin line we had to balance on of course, but I think it became an interesting article, that is not offensive to anyone.
      Also happy about the many comments, including yours! :D

  10. Interesting…
    Here’s a bit of something to throw in the “hasn’t been worked out yet, pile.” I come from a line (father’s side) of german alcoholics. While both my brother’s managed to avoid it (they took other things), I’m the one who liked to drink early on. I also quit for 15 years. Once I tried it again, (more casually, and sanely), I found I couldn’t drink nearly as much. Years later and I’ve developed an alcohol allergy. I can cook with it, but if I drink it, I get something like the DT’s. I’m cold, shaky, and turn beet red. That’s when I remembered my father and both his brothers were also very red in the face (and later permanently) after drinking. Could the German genes also have some sort of hiccup? Oh and there is a “cure” of sorts. If I eat asparagus I’m fine (yeah, it’s known information), seems it gives me the proper enzymes to break down alcohol.

    • Hmmmm very interesting… I have never heard of Germans being extra vulnerable. But I guess every race has people that are genetically more likely to become alcoholic. Actually I am Dutch myself (which is basically the same roots as Germans)… Lot of Dutch people also turn red easily, like English and Irish.
      And regarding alcohol allergy, the father of one of our best friends has this too. He now can’t drink anymore and has to get his satisfaction from watching us. He loves to get us drunk hahaha

  11. Ha ha! Brilliant post! You also have to look at the social economics of a race though. I have an Ozzie mate who told me that the Australian government are know to put bottle stores all around aboriginal villages. Keep them drunk, keep them from stirring a political storm. I obviously have no proof and have done no research, it’s just hearsay.

    • Hmmmm it’s actually interesting to play this theory on to the Australian readers of our blog.
      I can also believe that if you have a neighbourhood full of heavy drinkers it’s quite profitable to put a liquor store next to it!

  12. Nice article..delving into the science of things is the way to go. I wonder about the acetaldehyde in the Irish-American gene-pool, since I can totally see myself in this sentence: “A clear sign of a high acetaldehyde-level is that the face turns extremely red.”

  13. Hi, interesting article. Is it easy to be tested for this enzyme? I have often wondered why I am hit so hard on just a few drinks. Btw, I have Native American blood in me. Appreciate your thoughts…. Thank you kindly.

  14. Very interesting article! I’m aware of studies that show the hereditary link for predisposition to alcoholism, and also that alcohol effects different people differently (males vs females, muscle vs non=muscly body composition etc) so not too surprised to read that racial genetics also have a role to play here. I do this this is an area worthy of further research, if for no other reason, then to help dispel the notion of lazy alcoholic native Indians.

    Contrary to popular notions, I personally think its awesome people of Asian racial makeup get drunk quicker. Imagine all the money they save up over a life time?!

  15. Reblogged this on Damian Thorn and commented:
    reblogging from lordofthedrinks.workpress.com blog.
    Found this one pretty interesting. Would be interesting to see actual research studies behind this, and how/if this can be helpful in dispensing with the lazy alcoholic native Indian myth that’s so ingrained in the rest of north American communities.
    We also need to research more so many priests are pedophiles! Do the lord telleth them to do these evil deeds? or does the church inject when with a gene that makes them susceptible to pedophilia when they’re getting ordained into the church?

  16. Your post should’ve said “Tell that to the thousands of black students following a few whites in a physics exam” they are only good at running and basketball and that makes them believe they are superior lol what a joke. how is this for politcal correctness then africans were living in mudhuts with bones through their noses,plates in their lips and running around like animals throwing spears and rocks at each other and eating each other and fighting each other in pits with sticks

  17. “I’ll drink to that.” – being a half Chinese, half Irish/Scottish/Oglala Lakota Sioux. Cheers to Blackouts and further species of divine inebriation!

  18. Nice article, explains it well. I lived in Philippines for some years now and am very familiar with those red faces in some of them, mostly girls, now i know the reason. And yeah, relatively many cant stomach their alcohol that well, i mean i seen lots of white people who cannot also but its a bit more common in Asians.

    Funny that the article mentions that Koreans more rarely are lacking that second enzyme, i have been to Korean parties and noticed that they had more endurance in drinking, at the time i thought it had to be due to their more relaxed ways of drinking, not the forced stressful shots that many Filipinos practice.

  19. Hey, verrrrry interesting read, LOTD! Being Chinese myself, I have had countless conversations with my brothers and sisters of the East regarding alcohol tolerance. Our less than scientific conclusions are:
    1) Koreans are a whole other animal. Those guys and gals seem to hit the bottle hard and heavy with great regularity and little ill effect.
    2) A lotta the “red faced” Asian drinkers swear that they don’t feel drunk even though their faces are beet red. I’m suspicious though…
    3) The alcohol of Asia seems to have evolved to reflect Asian’s lack of alcohol tolerance. Asian beers tend to be light pilsners and Asian liquor (like sake and sooju) are basically wine. Also, Asian places serve beer in these tiny glasses.

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  23. I might be a dipshit but I found this article fascinating. Being half-Korean, I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve puked while drinking (truly proving my dipshit-ness is that I still drink). (BTW, Juan Zung, a commenter above, says we Koreans a wholly different animals; this may be true but I still get beet red when I drink, and can’t hold my alcohol very well.)
    Perhaps the different races’ level of tolerance to alcohol has something to do with adaptation? It’d be interesting to explore.

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