Is Alcoholism An ‘Allergy of The Body’?

Published On 03-August-2020
By Tim Wood

alcohol allergy

Alcoholism is a chronic condition that affects more than a quarter of the population of Britain, and 16% of Americans.

To this day, 6 people worldwide die of alcohol-related illnesses. [1]

These statistics indicate whether or not you believe alcoholism is an 'allergy of the body' or is a condition controlled by the mind, it is seriously affecting society today.

In this post, we will discuss whether alcohol is an allergy as claimed by the world-renown Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book teachings.

What is the 'Alcohol Allergy' in AA?

AA sometimes refers to alcoholism as an alcohol allergy due to the physical response that people with addiction have that differs from everyone else.

Specifically, they are usually referring to the cravings that someone experiences when they are addicted to alcohol, even after they have begun the recovery process.

With the craving comes a variety of other symptoms such as a loss in appetite, insomnia, hyper motor activity, and dry skin.

In AA, they say you must manage these symptoms the same way people manage other allergies, avoid the substance that causes the reaction, in this case, alcohol. [2]

What is it with AA and the Alcohol Allergy?

A major part of AA (or alcoholics anonymous), a twelve-step program, is staying entirely away from alcohol. Defining alcoholism as an allergy to alcohol is a major part of the logic supporting this reasoning.

An allergy is a negative physical reaction to a substance, and AA claims that the negative physical reaction that other people do not experience, known as cravings, is enough to define alcoholism as an allergy.

When you are allergic to something, it is a common-sense decision to avoid the substance entirely. Defining their addiction as an allergy to alcohol allows them to make avoiding alcohol the logical decision for anyone who has been addicted to alcohol.

Is Alcoholism Actually an Allergy?

Many people disagree with the idea that alcoholism is, in fact, an allergy. When someone is allergic to a substance, they tend to experience specific symptoms upon contact or consumption, such as rashes, inflammation, and anaphylaxis.

When someone with an alcohol addiction drinks, they do not experience any of these common symptoms. [3]

However, research has shown that people with alcohol addictions do respond differently physically to alcohol than normal drinkers do. They often metabolise it differently and therefore, are more likely to develop a dependency and therefore experience a negative physical reaction due to cravings.

Because of all this, there is a lot of conflicting information on whether or not it is an allergy, and it really depends on how you define an allergy.

How Accepted is This Theory?

There is a lot of conflicting opinions about whether or not alcoholism is in allergy. If you ask someone who goes to or is involved in AA, they will most likely believe that alcohol is an allergy and may respond negatively if someone implies that it is not.

On the other hand, people who study alcoholism apart from AA, typically reject the theory that alcoholism is an allergy, and may even find it illogical that anyone would even suggest that it is. As time goes on, it does seem to be becoming a less and less popular theory, even amongst people in AA. 

Supporting Statements of This Theory

There is research that shows that people with addictions react to substances (such as alcohol) differently than other people. People in support of this theory say that physical allergy is the reason why people cannot stop drinking once they begin. [4]

When someone has an allergy to something like lactose, they have an abnormal response to the substance that other people do not have. Because people with addiction have an abnormal response to alcohol that other people do not have: they crave alcohol, alcoholism appears to be similar to an allergy.

Problems With The Theory

Those who oppose the theory, use the definition of allergy. This definition says that an allergy is a reaction of the immune system to a substance and that allergies are easily detected by skin tests. Under this theory, alcoholism would not count as an allergy.

The negative and abnormal response is not in the immune system. Furthermore, there is no way to test alcoholism through a skin test, as you can test all other allergies. These inconsistencies are the biggest problem with the theory.

Case Studies to Disprove the Alcohol Allergy

In 1972 Alan Marlatt created a study to test if people drank more due to the expectation of alcohol rather than the physical properties. In his test, he used both alcoholics and social drinkers. He divided the subjects into four groups. The first group was told they would receive alcohol and did.

The second group was told they would be receiving non-alcoholic drinks, and did. The third group was told they would be drinking alcohol and were given non-alcoholic drinks. The fourth group was told they would not be drinking alcohol and were given alcohol.

After the test was complete, Marlatt found that the groups that believed they were drinking alcohol, drank more, whether they were actually drinking it or not. This challenges the idea that alcohol is an allergy.

The Difference Between Actual Alcohol Intolerance and the 'Alcohol Allergy'

There are people that have an actual intolerance to alcohol, which many people would consider much closer to an actual allergy than the theory posed by the AA.

Alcohol intolerance is when people drink alcohol and then experience a number of negative physical symptoms such as flushing, headache, diarrhoea, stuffy nose, rash, heartburn, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. More often than not, this reaction is to some other ingredient in the drink (yeast, barley, sulphites, egg proteins, wheat, etc.) rather than the actual alcohol itself.

This is different than the alcohol allergy theory because people with an alcohol intolerance probably will not want to keep drinking, as people with alcoholism do, because of the cravings. [5]

Is Alcoholism Still Considered an Allergy?

Most people would probably not consider alcoholism to be an allergy, at least in the same sense that we consider other things allergies like dust or peanuts. However, it is still used by many people in AA and is excepted as a good way to explain alcoholism to people who do not really understand what it is.

In conclusion, no, today, most people do not still consider alcoholism to be an allergy due to a variety of different research studies. However, you can still find plenty of support for this theory backed by evidence.

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References 

[1] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

[2] https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/en_bigbook_foreworddoctorsopinion.pd

[3] https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

[4] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/002076407201800305

[5] https://www.allergy.org.au/patients/other-allergy/alcohol-allergy


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