Can Red Hair Affect Alcohol Tolerance?
A recessive mutation in the melanocortin 1 receptor causes red hair. Also known as the MC1R gene, this protein is located on chromosome 16 and controls the production of melanin, 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.
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)
- 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.
If you’re worried that someone you care about may be struggling with alcohol addiction, get in touch with Zinnia Health. We can help with person-centered treatment, supportive care, and counseling. Call our 24/7 helpline at (855) 430-9439, which is a free alcohol addiction number, to talk to our experienced admissions and support team.
Is There any Evidence That Redheads Have a Higher Genetic Tolerance for Alcohol?
The MC1R gene is believed to be responsible for some types of pain perception, which happens 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.
Excessive alcohol consumption causes inflammation, so theoretically, less inflammation could mean better long-term tolerance to alcohol, but this hasn’t been specifically studied. 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 do 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. 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.
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.
Why Do People Say Redheads Have a Higher Alcohol Tolerance?
While redheads may have some additional alcohol tolerance via the melanocortin system, there really isn’t enough evidence to say for sure. So, what else may have led to the notion that redheaded drinkers have a hefty alcohol tolerance?
The idea that redheads have a higher alcohol tolerance may come from a few places. Most obviously, red hair is more prevalent in Northern Europe, particularly Scotland and Ireland. Ireland, Scotland, and Northern Europe at large are all known as hard-drinking nations.
A study from the British Medical Council confirms that “Europe reports the uppermost volume of alcohol consumption in the world” with Ireland and the UK reporting “the highest levels of binge drinking and drunkenness.”
Across Northern Europe, drinking ages tend to be relatively low, while levels of national drinking and alcoholism are high. So, redheads may have created a myth of ‘higher tolerance’ by building alcohol tolerance through regular drinking from a young age. They could also have a higher tolerance for alcohol through a genetic predisposition that seems to be passed down through heavy-drinking families.
This doesn’t mean that if you’re Irish or a redhead, you’re doomed to become a problem drinker or an alcoholic. If you stick to the FDA recommendations of one or fewer drinks per day for women and two or fewer drinks per day for men, you’re a very low-risk drinker. And if you find you can’t stick to those limits, it may be time to seek help.
Worried you may be developing a dependence on alcohol or suffering from alcohol addiction? Zinnia Health is here to help. We offer both inpatient and outpatient programs to support you on the road to sobriety. Call our helpline 24/7 at (855) 430-9439 to start your healing journey.
Do Redheads Have a Higher Pain Threshold?
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. 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.
They also make opioid receptors more sensitive, overall blocking more pain than they enhance.
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. 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-redhead. They need more local and general anesthetics than most other people for it to be effective. This tolerance to some drugs and to pain has probably led to the idea that redheads are more tolerant to everything, alcohol included.
What Does Having a Higher Alcohol Tolerance Mean?
If you’re drinking with a group and one of your friends consumed 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 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 actually 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.
Final Thoughts on Redheads and Alcohol Tolerance
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.