“There are several genetic factors that make it hard for your body to process alcohol,” says Chen, “such as the gene mutation MTHFR [Methylene tetrahydrofolate reductase]. Forty percent of people have this gene, me being one of the ‘lucky ones.’” According to Chen, people with MTHFR are deficient in Methylene tetrahydrofolate, an enzyme responsible for detoxifying the body. As a result, people with MTHFR feel the effects of alcohol quicker because their body takes longer to filter alcohol out of the bloodstream.
Other enzymes, such as ADH (Alcohol dehydrogenase) and Aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH), are responsible for breaking down alcohol as well, and genetic deficiencies in those enzymes can also lead to slower detoxification. “You may have heard of ‘Asian glow’ or ‘Asian flush,’” says Chen. “This is the result of having inadequate Aldehyde dehydrogenase, which creates a byproduct of alcohol that builds up and dilates your blood vessels, creating that flush.” In other words, you may have your parents to thank for your low tolerance (and embarrassingly red face).
“Generally, women have higher body fat ratios than men, which is completely normal,” says Chen. “But that inhibits their ability to digest more alcohol.” But it isn’t just body fat ratios that affect a woman’s ability to hold their liquor; regular hormonal changes also factor into the mix. “Estrogen and estrogen-adding birth control can also slow down a woman’s body from being able to process alcohol,” Chen says. But what if you’re a guy who can’t keep up with his female companions? Don’t worry, there’s an explanation for you, too.
Yet another reason to hit the gym, it turns out the more muscular you are, the more alcohol you’ll be able to handle. “Alcohol is water soluble, not fat soluble,” says Chen. “If you are more muscle bound, your muscles will have more water and can dilute and distribute the alcohol better.” So it could pay to hit the gym and pack on some muscle; a heavy weight at the gym will make you a heavyweight in the bar.
What You Can Do to Handle Alcohol Better
While you can’t change your genes, Chen says there are steps one can take to better handle their alcohol. “The age-old tips of eating while you drink, drinking slower, ordering alcohol with a low ABV will help,” she says. Chen also suggests staying away from highly caffeinated drinks that could mask the effects of alcohol. “Caffeine is a diuretic just like alcohol; it’s leeching a lot of the water out of you, and therefore, the ratios of water content and alcohol are going to be tipped toward alcohol,” says Chen. So order that basket of fries at the bar with confidence, and lay off the Vodka Redbulls.