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My wife is Japanese. Why does wine seem to affect her differently?

Douglas De Jesus
Posted: July 8, 2014

Q: I'm African-American and my wife is Japanese. We both enjoy wine, but it seems like after a glass, she's almost drunk. Why is this happening? Does it have to do with how her liver processes alcohol? Is there anything she should do?—Ron E.

A: This is not an isolated phenomenon among individuals of Asian descent, according to bariatric dietitian Melissa Rifkin from the Department of Surgery at Montefiore Medical Center.

Rifkin says that the so-called “Asian flush” is not merely anecdotal: Some people of East Asian descent are unable “to break down the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase, which digests alcohol in the liver." This genetic condition is often characterized, Rifkin adds, “by flushed cheeks, increased heart rate, headache and nausea."

But ethnicity is not the only factor at play here—gender also plays a role. "In terms of wine and women, a woman's body has a higher ratio of fat to water,” says Rifkin. After one drink, a woman’s blood alcohol concentration will be higher than a man’s. Women’s decreased levels of the dehydrogenase enzyme mean that they absorb up to nearly 30 percent more alcohol than men, according to our expert.

The good news is that anyone can increase his or her tolerance to alcohol, regardless of race or gender. “With more exposure to alcohol, in moderation,” Rifkin notes, “your wife's side effects should lessen."

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