Nootropics & the Alcohol Flush Reaction
Most people that know me—even as a casual acquaintance—have heard the tale of my body’s longstanding biological disagreements with alcohol, as well as the near-miraculous reversal of fortune provided by some of the nootropics in my daily supplement regimen.
Sometime around 1998 my body suddenly decided that it really, really no longer liked alcohol… or at least I had aged enough to no longer be able to weather hangovers like a normal youngish person. I began suffering from horrible, multi-day hangovers that would have me curled up in the fetal position wanting to stab out my brain with an ice pick for most of that downtime, even if I had only consumed enough alcohol to achieve a mild buzz. After doing some research into these effects, the best test for this at the time was to determine whether or not the symptoms were really just an allergic reaction via a skin prick test. After determining that I was not actually allergic, I self-diagnosed as suffering from Alcohol Flush Reaction, even though I don’t seem to actually get the flushed skin symptom. At the time, just identifying the symptoms seemed to be the most accurate “test” for this condition. Due to these effects, and having attempted every possible hangover prevention method or cure that I could identify, I essentially gave up alcohol entirely.
A few years ago I discovered nootropics—supplements which affect the brain and nervous system and are generally meant to assist with cognitive function, memory, and general nervous system health. At the time that I began experimenting with them, lots of other members of our local Austin Hackers Association (AHA!) were also interested, so a decent sized group of us all began taking various different combinations of nootropics at about the same time. Hackers, being huge lushes, drink a lot of alcohol and after even just a few days of being on their nootropic regimen a few AHA! members reported suddenly no longer suffering hangovers.
I wondered if perhaps these magic supplements might solve my problems with alcohol…
It turns out that they did. I performed a number of guinea pig tests from mild drinking to getting stupid dizzy falling over drunk, and without boring you with all the details of my self-inflicted science experiments, the results were fantastic. No matter how much I drank or of what kind of alcohol I had none of the immediate effects that I had previously suffered. I would wake up the next morning bright and chipper as if I had not consumed a drop. After further experimentation involving systematically removing and replacing the most likely individual nootropics from my regimen, I’ve determined that the anti-hangover effects for me are a result of a combination of CDP-Choline and Sulbutamine. If I restrict myself to just one of these, I will still get some mild hangover symptoms but if I’m taking both of them then all the symptoms are completely gone.
“The ALDH2 gene encodes a protein called aldehyde dehydrogenase. This protein is an enzyme responsible for the second step of ethanol processing: the conversion of the highly toxic acetaldehyde to the harmless acetic acid (vinegar). The A version of the SNP causes the gene to encode an enzyme that is completely inactive and unable to convert acetaldehyde at all. Having two copies of this version results in an extremely unpleasant experience when drinking, as the ethanol is converted into acetaldehyde and is only removed from the body very slowly.”
My genotype for ALDH2 is GG, which indicates that I have two working copies of ALDH2. Genotype AG has one working copy, and AA has no working copies. The fewer working copies of ALDH2 a person has, the more severe their reaction to alcohol. I have two working copies of ALDH2 so should have little or no flushing reaction, which I don’t, however this is only one of two genes involved. Depending on my genotype for the other gene, ADH1B, I may still actually suffer from other symptoms of Alcohol Flush Reaction, but unfortunately 23andMe has not yet produced a report for ADH1B:
“Sensitivity to alcohol— the alcohol flush reaction—depends almost entirely on a person’s genotype at two genes, ALDH2 and ADH1B. 23andMe currently reports your genotype at a SNP in ALDH2. It is possible that those with the AG or GG genotypes at the SNP are more sensitive to alcohol due to their genotype at ADH1B” (which 23andMe does not report).
If at some point in the future I am able to determine my genotype for ADH1B, I should be able to identify whether my initial self-diagnosis was correct or not. If not, then there’s something else going on that causes my body to react this way to alcohol and more investigation will be in order.