The genetics of alcohol tolerance

If you expect this to be a genuine scientific treatise of the topic, abandon that idea. I’m writing this on a Monday night from a recently Internet-free apartment and, absent anything besides memories of P-450 cytochrome oxidase and enzyme induction in general, will choose anecdotes over physiology, and post this in the morning from Mom and Dad’s.

A related phenomenon, one familiar to me, is the correlation between running performance and training. You might see two kids new to running go out and run the same times for five kilometers on no training. Yet as both undergo a similar regimen, one improves drastically while the other improves more modestly. The rationale is differences in enzyme induction, the this case the ones within mitochondria responsible for oxygen processing and utilization. Some people are wondrously capable of improving their performances on account of rapidly increasing improvements of the working muscles in terms of converting the O2 delivered to moving faster. Others are more biologically staid and improve to “average” status.

The liver is the site of many, many enzymes responsible for breaking down drugs into inert substances. It’s no secret that some people forever become drunk after part of a six-pack while others spiral down a dark a path toward needing, and wanting, ludicrous amounts of booze in order to become as wrecked as they feel they need to be. Psychological factors play a huge role in this.

Earlier today I was talking to a woman friend of mine who was once famous for her alcohol consumption, at leas withing the circles in which she travels. As she describes it, virtually all of her first- and second-degree relatives are unabashed drunks whose chief pursuits are fighting, fostering resentments, and in general committing themselves to chaos and chemical fugues. She describes on occasion a number of years ago in which she drank exactly 26 beers a day for four days in a row. This is something that would put most of of the most committed 200-pound frat boys under the table in short order. She weighs maybe 125 pounds.

I don’t know whether I ever displayed this kind of manic endurance, but I did her one better one one ludicrous day in 2003. Like most far-gone drinkers. I seemed to care far more about the opinions of store clerks than about my family, friends, and general livelihood. I’d been on a month-long, single-minded rampage that I fully expected (and hoped) would terminate in a jump off a bridge on the Blue Ridge Parkway that included a 200-foot drop onto the rocky banks of the Roanoke River.

I woke up one morning after a serious day of drinking a about 6 a.m. The convenience store I favored for my intoxicating purchases was open 24 hours a day, so I headed there without pause except to put on shoes. I bought a 12-pack of some brand of shitty beer and headed home. Bu 8:30 or so it was all gone.

I knew that the cashier shifts at this store were 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., and 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. I was therefore aware that if I went back for another 12-pack I’d be facing a different cashier than the one I had dealt with earlier that morning. So I did. And by mid-afternoon I had killed that batch of suds, too.

5 p.m. rolled around and I decided I was still disgustingly sober despite pissing a pint or more about every 20 minutes. So I made my third trip of the day to this Texaco station and secured yet another 12-pack. This one was history by 8 p.m. or so.

At this point I had what passes as a philosophical moment. A 138-pound person knocking back 36 12-ounce beers in the course of the daylight of a summer day is not anywhere close to the median in terms of such pursuits. I left the apartment, walked (mostly in a straight line) to a beautiful cemetery nearby, and looked over the headstones at the prominence of the equally elegant peak known as Stewart Knob. And I thought (and maybe said), “there’s something really fucking wrong with all of this.”

Most human beings would be in a state of surgical anesthesia at whatever blood-alcohol level I “boasted” that day. I takes the perfect storm of genetically granted tolerance and personality problems to even try. And I woke up the next day and drank some more. Someone without the right genetics could never reach this kind of absurd level of ethanol tolerance no matter how much he or she “trained.” There would be puking, passing out, and maybe alcohol poisoning, but no 36-beer holiday.

There’s no lesson here other than the fact that it takes a special combination of qualities to be a genuine addict. And being a slave to chemicals sucks. I’m not proud of any of what I’ve recounted here and wish I’d been more genetically talented at something else.

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