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Alcohol Allergies and Intolerances

Wheat and Gluten Allergies, Sulfite Allergies, Histamine Intolerance and Alcohol

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Updated June 09, 2014

Alcohol Allergies and Intolerances

Distilled alcohol is considered safe for those with wheat allergies and for celiacs.

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Do you seem to get sick every time you drink alcohol? I'm not talking about feeling hungover, I'm talking about experiencing food allergy symptoms or odd gastrointestinal or physical symptoms after only one or two drinks. You may be dealing with one of the many types of alcohol allergies and intolerances.

While true allergies to ethanol (the type of alcohol in intoxicating beverages) are rare, alcoholic beverages include a number of ingredients that can cause allergies and intolerances. While some of these allergies may require you to abstain from alcohol entirely, some can be worked around.

Gluten and Wheat

Gluten, the protein that triggers celiac disease reactions, is found in malted barley, which is used to make beer and some hard ciders. Some beer also contains wheat.

Some alcoholic beverages are distilled, meaning that they have been condensed and evaporated. Common distilled beverages are sometimes made from wheat, rye, and barley include vodka, whiskey, gin and bourbon. The American Dietetic Association considers distilled spirits safe for celiacs. Little research has been done on the effects of distilled spirits made from wheat on people with wheat allergies, but the European Food Safety Authority considers them safe.

If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of consuming grain alcohol, try potato vodka - I prefer Chopin - or corn whiskey, as substitutes for wheat-derived drinks.

Because the gluten-free commercial market has grown so much, many manufacturers make alcoholic beverages that are free from wheat and barley. Microbrews have been available in some markets for five years or more, and Anheuser-Busch recently rolled out Redbridge Beer, a sorghum-based beer that is the first gluten-free beer to be sold nationally. Some other common beers - including Budweiser and Coors Light - are wheat-free but not gluten-free, though always check labels, as ingredients may change.

Common alcoholic beverages that are naturally gluten-free include wine, sake, and most brandies. Most liqueurs and some wine coolers are gluten-free as well, but it's advisable to check labels or manufacturer websites for these, since there are exceptions.

Histamine Intolerance

Many foods, including aged cheese and red wine, are high in histamine, the same chemical involved in a number of allergic reactions in the body. Two enzymes, diamine oxidase (DAO) and histamine-N-methyltransferase (HNMT), bind to histamine in food and metabolize it in the body. In some individuals, however, these enzymes don't work properly due to genetic disorders or gastrointestinal diseases. This can cause a variety of histamine intolerance symptoms, including the so-called "red wine headache." (There is some evidence for histamine being associated with migraines.)

While red wine is especially high in histamines, all alcoholic beverages are histamine-rich. Antihistamines are somewhat useful in treating histamine intolerance symptoms when they occur, but the best treatment for histamine intolerance is a histamine-free - and, therefore, alcohol-free - diet. Other histamine-rich foods include cured meats, spinach, tomatoes, and fermented foods like kefir.

Sulfite Allergies

A group of sulfur-containing compounds known as sulfites occur naturally in wine and beer, and they help inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Vintners sometimes add additional sulfites to wines as preservatives. In susceptible individuals, sulfites can trigger asthma attacks or even anaphylactic shock.

For most sulfite-sensitive people, the asthmatic response is dose-sensitive and very low amounts of sulfites do not trigger a response. U.S. labeling laws require any food with sulfite concentrations greater than 10 parts per million (ppm) to be listed on the label using the term "contains sulfites," and for the vast majority of people, concentrations too low to require this warning don't cause problems.

However, if your allergist has alerted you that you may be at risk of anaphylaxis or other systemic reactions due to sulfites, you should avoid all wine. There is no such thing as a truly sulfite-free wine. While organic wines are not allowed to include added sulfites, by law, some do include enough natural sulfites to be problematic for some asthmatic individuals.

Read on to learn about yeast allergies and grape allergies.
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