Is alcoholism an allergy?  Is it an allergic reaction to alcohol that creates irresistible cravings for more alcohol? Does this allergy cause a loss of control over drinking? The theory that alcoholism is an allergy is a major part of the Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) belief system. And that of other 12 step programs as well. But is alcoholism an allergy? If not, a major assumption of 12 step programs is false.

alcoholism an allergy

Is alcoholism an allergy?

In its introductory pamphlet, A.A. states that “We are perfectly willing to admit that we are allergic to alcohol and that it is simply common sense to stay away from the source of our allergy.”1 In another pamphlet it asserts that alcoholics have “a mental obsession to drink coupled with a physical allergy to alcohol.”2 In yet another it refers to the “the physical allergy to alcohol” experienced by alcoholics.3 Alcoholics Anonymous (known as The Big Book”) currently calls alcoholism an allergy a half-dozen times.

From the beginning, the Big Book has included an introductory section by Dr. William Silkworth in which his allergy theory is presented. He considered alcoholism an allergy. According to Dr. Silkworth’s idea, alcoholics who consume alcohol have an allergic reaction to it in which their body creates substances that cause irresistible cravings for more alcohol and loss of control. Since then, much effort has been devoted in unsuccessful attempts to find any evidence to support his speculation.

An allergy is a negative physiological reaction to some substance (the allergen). It’s often things such as pollen, dust, or certain foods. The negative reactions commonly include such things as difficulty in breathing, eye irritation, rashes, and so on.

Alcoholism expert Kenneth Anderson points out that “An allergy by definition is a reaction of the immune system to a given chemical. Allergies are easily detected by a skin test.” 4 However, there is no skin test for alcoholism. Nor are alcoholics injected with small quantities of alcohol to treat their “allergy.”

A well-documented allergy (actually an intolerance) to alcohol is known as “Oriental flushing reflex.” It is called that because it occurs most often among Asians. It causes reddening of the skin or flushing, among other symptoms.

Those who suffer this condition quickly experience various unpleasant physiological reactions after consuming even small amounts of alcohol. In addition to flushing, these symptoms can include rapid breathing, itching, strange sensations in the ears, and other symptoms.

The Oriental flushing reflex doesn’t cause suffers to develop an irresistible craving or to want to drink more. The only way to prevent its very unpleasant symptoms is to abstain from drinking any alcohol. That’s because suffers are “allergic” to alcohol and allergies don’t cause cravings. The Oriental flushing reflex is often cited as an explanation for the generally low rate of alcoholism among Asians.

Similarly, people who are allergic or intolerant to pollen don’t seek out Goldenrod and other sources of pollen to sniff. They avoid all contact with pollen. An allergy to alcohol wouldn’t cause cravings for alcohol but a desire to avoid it.

Every human produces alcohol naturally within their bodies 24/7. Yet they don’t experiencing any irresistible cravings and loss of control. How does the theory that alcoholism is an allergy explain this fact?

Some people falsely believe that they’re allergic to alcohol when they actually have an allergy to substances frequently found in alcoholic beverages.

Potential allergens often found in various alcoholic beverages include yeast, wheat, barley, rye, and gluten. Others are hops, sulfites, sulfates, and histamines.

An allergy to sulfites might cause hives or anaphylaxis. One to sulphates might increase asthmatic symptoms in asthmatics. And one to histamines might cause nasal swelling and congestion. Symptoms of allergies to those allergens sometimes found in alcoholic beverages could include headaches, rapid heartbeat, heartburn, nausea, or vomiting.5

The AA theory that alcoholism is an allergy to alcohol that creates cravings for even more and loss of control is illogical. It’s inconsistent with what is known about allergies.  And it completely lacks any scientific supporting evidence.

How does the allergy theory explain the fact that alcoholic priests can regularly drink communion wine without having an irresistible craving for alcohol and a loss of control? Alcoholic priests don’t think they’re drinking alcohol but rather the blood of Christ. The allergy theory’s loss of control is a self-fulfilling prophesy only for those who believe in it.

In 1975, AA seemed to have finally accepted the fact that alcoholism is NOT an allergy that causes cravings. It noted that “alcoholism is not a true allergy, the experts now inform us.” 6 In reality, it was never the consensus opinion of experts that alcoholism was an allergy. It was only the illogical and unsupported speculation of Dr. Silkworth. And it was popularized in his “The Doctor’s Opinion” published in successive editions of AA’s “Big Book.”

However, that recognition appears to have been just an unfortunate “slip.” AA never really changed its doctrine that alcoholism is an allergy, It currently asserts that “When the Doctor’s Opinion was written in the 1930’s it was just an opinion. Medical science has progressed since then and has confirmed this opinion as fact.”8 Big Book Sponsorship similarly contends that “Medical Science has found that there is sound reasoning in the ‘Doctor’s Opinion’” that alcoholism is an allergy. 9 An AA member wrote that at a recent meeting the group was studying Dr. Silkworth’s opinion found in the “Big Book” that alcoholism is an allergy that causes cravings for more alcohol. When the member informed the group that alcoholism is not a allergy, he (or she?) met with strong disagreement.10 This isn’t surprising. Alcoholics are repeatedly told that an alcoholic “is allergic to alcohol”11 It’s drilled into them that “Alcoholics are allergic to alcohol….they have an allergic reaction to alcohol, which is unlike anything ever experienced by normal drinkers.”12

Is alcoholism an allergy to alcohol? No.

The allergy theory of alcoholism is only one of AA’s mistaken beliefs. Another, “powerlessness,” may contribute to the general ineffectiveness of A.A. and other 12 step programs. They have proven to be less effective for most people than doing nothing.

An alternative is to choose a non-12 step program. They include these.

Rational Recovery,

SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training).

Moderation Management.

LifeRing Recovery.

Women for Sobriety.

HAMS (Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support).

Life Process Program.

SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety).

Effective help is available.

Links

Readings

  • Anon. An Alcoholic Can Not Drink in Moderation. How to Survive website. Available at howtosurviveaa.com/alcoholism/an-alcoholic-can-not-drink-in-moderation/
  • Anon. Dr. William Duncan Silkworth: 1873 – 1951. A.A. Grapevine, 1951 (April). Available at silkworth.net/silkworth/wdsilkworth.html
  • Anon. Dr. Silkworth’s Rx for sobriety. A.A. Grapevine, 1945 (June). Available at silkworth.net/silkworth/rxsobriety.html
  • Anon. Allergy to alcohol: an alcoholic can not drink in moderation. How to Survive AA site. Available at howtosurviveaa.com/tag/allergy-to-alcohol/
  • Engle, K. B., & Williams, T. K. Effect of an ounce of vodka on alcoholics’ desire for alcohol. Q J Stud Alc, 1972, 33(4), 1099–1105.
  • Greeley, M. Alcoholism an Allergy. Fort Collins, CO: Chase a Dream, 1996.
  • Marlatt, G. A., et al. Loss of control drinking in alcoholics: an experimental analogue. J Ab Psych, 1973, 81(3), 233–241.
  • Merry, J. The “loss of control” myth. Lancet, 1966, 1(7449), 1257–1258.
  • Silkworth, W.D. Alcoholism as a manifestation of allergy.  Med Rec, 1937 (March 17). Available at silkworth.net/silkworth/allergy.html
  • Silkworth, W.D. The doctor’s opinion. In Alcoholics Anonymous. NY: Works, 1939, p. 1. (the “Big Book”) Available at silkworth.net/bb/contents.html. He considered alcoholism an allergy to alcohol.
  • Lamm, B. Is alcoholism an allergy? Duke U. Medicine/Share Care website. Available at sharecare.com/question/is-alcoholism-allergy
  • S., Danny. Buying the alcoholic “allergy” theory. Cape Cod Today, September 8, 2008. Available at capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php/2008/09/08/buying-the-alcoholic-allergy-theory?blog=40

References

1. This is A.A.: An Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program. http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-1_thisisaa1.pdf

2. A.A. and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic. http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/P-32_AAandtheGayLesbianAlcoholic.pdf

3. A Member’s Eye View of Alcoholics Anonymous. http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-41_amemberseyeviewofaa.pdf

4. Anderson, K. Myths From Drug And Alcohol Rehab. HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol http://www.hamsnetwork.org/myths

5. Kerr, M. Alcohol Allergies. HealthLine website, May 4, 2012.
http://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/alcohol#1

6. A.A. Living Sober. NY: A.A. World Services, 1975, p. 68.

7. Heather, N., & Robertson, I. Controlled Drinking. NY: Methuen, 1983.

8. The Problem. AA-Israel site. http://www.aa-israel.org/pages/problem.htm

9. Big Book Sponsorship. The Allergy of the Body and the Obsession of the Mind: Allergy of the Body. http://bigbooksponsorship.org/articles-alcoholism-addiction-12-step-program-recovery/big-book-study/disease-body-mind/

10. Alcoholism: Disease or Allergy? eHealthForum website http://ehealthforum.com/health/topic11126.html

11. Allergic to Alcohol? Alcoholism is a Real Disease. Watershed Addiction Programs website. https://www.thewatershed.com/blog/allergic-to-alcohol-treating-alcoholism/

12. Allergy to Alcohol. AA and How to Survive webpage, http://howtosurviveaa.com/tag/allergy-to-alcohol/

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