Substance Use

Do Redheads Have a Higher Alcohol Tolerance?

redhead woman drinking wine

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The notion that redheads possess a higher alcohol tolerance is a common belief, but scientific evidence to support this claim is limited. Hair color is primarily determined by genetic factors, and while certain genes associated with hair color may overlap with those influencing alcohol metabolism, the relationship is complex and not fully understood.

Alcohol tolerance varies widely among individuals and is influenced by various factors such as genetics, body weight, and overall health. While some studies suggest a potential link between certain genetic variations and alcohol metabolism, the idea that redheads universally have a higher alcohol tolerance remains inconclusive and should be approached with caution.

It is essential to recognize that alcohol affects individuals differently, and generalizations based on hair color may oversimplify the complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors influencing alcohol response.

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The Science Behind Red Hair and the MC1R Gene

A recessive mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor causes red hair. (1) Also known as the MC1R gene, this protein is located on chromosome 16 and controls melanin production, a skin pigment that natural redheads can’t make.  

Now that you understand what makes someone a redhead, we can explore what else the “redhead gene” does. Genetics is very complicated, and every gene has many functions and links to other genes, so very few conclusive answers are found in genetic studies. (2)

Aside from genetics, redheads could have higher alcohol tolerance for other reasons. As is the case with non-redheads, people with red hair may be able to drink more alcohol due to their:

  • Learned tolerance
  • Metabolic tolerance
  • Sex (men tend to be more tolerant of alcohol) (3)
  • Body size
  • Levels and efficiency of ADH and ADLH enzyme
  • Predisposition to alcoholism 

The truth is that alcohol addiction and misuse can affect anyone. A noticeably high alcohol tolerance in a friend or loved one, whether or not they’re a redhead, might be a sign of a problem. 

Alcohol Tolerance: What Does Science Say?

Alcohol tolerance, a nuanced aspect of how the body responds to alcohol, is influenced by various factors that extend beyond hair color. Scientifically, alcohol tolerance refers to the reduced sensitivity to the effects of alcohol over time, requiring individuals to consume more to achieve the same impact. 

Four factors contribute to variations in alcohol tolerance:

  1. Body Size and Composition:
    • Larger individuals typically have a higher tolerance due to a larger volume of body water, which can dilute alcohol and slow its absorption.
  2. Gender Differences:
    • Women often exhibit lower alcohol tolerance than men, attributed to differences in body composition, enzyme activity, and hormonal influences. (3)
  3. Ethnicity and Genetics:
    • Genetic factors play a role, with certain ethnic groups displaying variations in alcohol metabolism enzymes, influencing tolerance levels. (4)
  4. Drinking Habits:
    • Regular alcohol consumption can contribute to the development of tolerance, as the body adjusts to the presence of alcohol and requires higher amounts for the same effect.

While individual variations exist, the general scientific consensus emphasizes the importance of responsible drinking practices. It acknowledges the diverse ways in which alcohol affects individuals based on a range of factors.

Factors Affecting Alcohol Tolerance in Redheads

The MC1R gene is believed to be responsible for some types of pain perception in the middle of the brain. However, there’s scant evidence that redheads have a genetically higher tolerance for alcohol. 

Additionally, according to research in Front Psychiatry, the melanocortin system interacts with other systems in the brain and nerves, making some individuals more or less receptive to pain. The 2021 study found this affects how painkillers and anesthetics work and control inflammation. (5)

Excessive alcohol consumption causes inflammation, so theoretically, less inflammation could mean better long-term tolerance to alcohol, but this hasn’t been specifically studied. (6) Also, it’s not likely to make a redhead appear as though they had a higher tolerance to alcohol during a drinking session. 

That being said, some people metabolize alcohol faster than others. One study of the Genetics and Genomics of Alcoholism found that various ADH and ADLH genes may be related to the development of alcohol tolerance. (7) These genes occur at various rates within different populations.

Some genes, more common in East Asian populations, make it difficult for people to build an alcohol tolerance. Others, found more often in Northern European populations, directly affect alcohol and its consumption in an opposite way. (8)

Studies have shown hundreds of genes and genetic mutations related to how alcohol affects you, including tolerance. So, it’s nearly impossible to place all of the blame on genes for alcohol dependence or claim protection from alcoholism due to genetics. 

Do Redheads React Differently to Drugs?

The relationship between hair color, particularly red hair, and individual reactions to drugs has sparked curiosity and myths. While some beliefs suggest that redheads may have distinct responses to certain substances, it’s important to look at the facts.

1. Redheads and Pain Medication

Redheads have higher pain thresholds than most other people. They need lower doses of analgesics and should be particularly careful with opioids and other pain medications. (9) Red-headed people are also sensitive to heat and cold temperatures and possibly electric shock as well.

Because redheads experience pain differently than people with other hair colors, people around them might think redheads’ alcohol tolerance is higher. If a redhead isn’t reacting to painful situations following dangerous heavy drinking sessions in the same way as their friends, they might seem “less drunk” due to a high pain tolerance.

2. Redheads and Anesthesia

A study published in the medical journal Anesthesia confirmed that most (9 out of 10) redheads don’t react to anesthesia like non-redheads. (10) They need more local and general anesthetics than most other people for it to be effective. This tolerance to some drugs and pain has probably led to the idea that redheads are more tolerant to everything, alcohol included. 

Red hair has been linked to differences in processing pain. Researchers conducted experiments on a strain of red-haired mice that carry the same MC1R variant that’s also found in people with red hair. (11) The mutation suppresses the function of the melanocortin 1 receptor. The study found that these red-haired mice show higher tolerance to pain.

This may be because their melanocytes (cells that produce melanin and are affected by the MC1R variant) secrete less of a protein called POMC than the melanocytes of mice of other colors. POMC includes hormones that enhance pain and hormones that block pain. (5)

They also make opioid receptors more sensitive, overall blocking more pain than they enhance. 

Is High Alcohol Tolerance Good?

If you’re drinking with a group and one of your friends consumes as much alcohol as everyone else but appears less drunk than everyone else, they may have a high alcohol tolerance. If you drink but don’t feel a “buzz,” you also have a high alcohol tolerance.

Some people may also have learned tolerance or environmental tolerance. This means they don’t look or feel impaired in environments they’re used to. They may also seem sober while doing tasks they have practiced before while drunk. 

Importantly, a higher alcohol tolerance does not mean you’ll have a lower BAC. You’ll still be subject to consequences if you are caught driving under the influence, injuring yourself or anyone else after drinking, or getting into any trouble while drunk.

You might feel less impaired, but the alcohol is still circulating in your body. In addition, the toxic byproducts are still damaging your liver and nervous system and raising your risk of skin cancer and heart disease. 

A high tolerance for alcohol means you’re in danger of:

  • Hurting yourself or someone else because you feel sober while impaired
  • Harming yourself because your body is no longer warning you when you have consumed excessive alcohol — you’re less likely to feel sick, be sick, or pass out, and more likely to keep drinking and repeat the pattern more often
  • Drinking more and more over time because you want the same buzz you used to get from far less alcohol
  • Causing illness over time. As mentioned, tolerance doesn’t mean alcohol is any less harmful to your body or mental health
  • You’re in danger of developing alcohol addiction. If you drink to a level that results in noticeably high alcohol tolerance, you’re probably getting closer to having a physical addiction.

Health Risks and Alcohol Misuse

Alcohol misuse poses a spectrum of health risks, affecting individuals differently based on various factors. The immediate consequences may include impaired judgment, coordination, and increased accident risks. (12)

Over the long term, alcohol misuse can contribute to severe health issues such as liver disease, cardiovascular problems, and increased susceptibility to certain cancers. Mental health is also impacted, with alcohol misuse linked to conditions like depression and anxiety.

Additionally, the social and economic ramifications of alcohol misuse extend beyond individual health, affecting relationships, employment, and overall well-being. Recognizing these varied risks underscores the importance of promoting responsible drinking habits and seeking help when needed.

Getting Help: Resources for Alcohol Addiction

Accessing help for alcohol addiction is crucial for recovery, and numerous resources are available to support individuals on this journey. Helplines, such as the National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA), offer immediate assistance and guidance.

American treatment options range from outpatient counseling to inpatient rehabilitation programs, providing tailored approaches to address individual needs. Support groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), offer a sense of community and shared experiences.

Online trending platforms, informational websites to read up on news, podcasts, and local mental health services contribute to the vast network of resources available for those seeking help with alcohol addiction.

Worried About Your Alcohol Intake? Call Us Today

There’s not enough evidence to claim redheads have a higher tolerance to alcohol than other people. However, several social and genetic factors (including the MC1R mutation) may lead to a perception that they have a high tolerance and a predisposition to alcoholism.

Anyone, regardless of hair color, with a high tolerance to alcohol is in danger of developing alcohol dependency or alcohol addiction. 

If this sounds like you or someone close to you, it’s time to get in touch with Zinnia Health. We offer ongoing support in a positive environment and without judgment. Reach out to our treatment team today to discuss your options.


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