How evolution is destroying our tolerance to alcohol

The Vitl Nutrition Team / 9 Mar 2018

Mother nature isn't happy about your drinking habits, so she's decided to do something about it...


Research shows that we are still constantly evolving. Our genomes have evolved over the last centuries and even decades. Since Roman times, the British have grown taller and fairer, and just in the last generation, the effect of a gene variant that makes you more likely to smoke cigarettes has shrunk in some populations.

Nature has its way to protect us, and it seems that one of the ways to do so is to create a genetic variant that will destroy our ability to tolerate alcohol.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analysed the genomes of 2500 individuals from 26 areas to identify “genomic hotspots” – new variants that pop up in different populations that persist over time. These are genes that scientists believe are favoured by evolution and so will be more likely be passed to future generations.

One of those “hotspots” have been found in a gene called ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase). ADH is the enzyme that breaks down alcohol, which it does by metabolizing it into a compound called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a toxic chemical, so you can thank it for that pounding headache the morning after a night out. Usually, the body has a way to turn this toxic chemical into acetate, which is not toxic, helping us to recover from the hangover.

However, evolution is finding a way to warn us about the damaging effect of booze by introducing new variants in ADH gene. These variants weaken the body’s alcohol resistance, making us feel sick very quickly after consuming just a small amount of booze. These variants have mostly only been found so far in East Asia and West Africa, but time will show how quickly it will spread to other populations! 

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