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 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.