Is alcoholism an allergy to alcohol? Is it an allergic reaction to alcohol that creates strong cravings for more alcohol? Does this allergy cause a loss of control over drinking?
I. Alcoholism an Allergy?
II. What IS an Allergy?
III. Theory and Evidence
IV. A.A. Supports Theory
V. Alcoholism an Allergy
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?
I. Alcoholism an Allergy?
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
It also asserts that alcoholics have “a mental obsession to drink coupled with a physical allergy to alcohol.”2 AA refers to the “the physical allergy to alcohol” experienced by alcoholics.3 The book Alcoholics Anonymous (“The Big Book”) calls alcoholism an allergy a half-dozen times.
From the beginning, the Big Book has included an introductory section by the late Dr. William Silkworth. He presented his allergy theory in it.
Silkworth considered alcoholism an allergy. According to Dr. Silkworth’s idea, alcoholics who consume alcohol have an allergic reaction to it. Their body creates substances that cause irresistible cravings for more alcohol and loss of control.
However, no person, agency, or other group has found any evidence to support his speculation.
II. What IS an Allergy?
An allergy is a negative physical 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.
Expert Kenneth Anderson notes 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 do doctors inject alcoholics with small quantities of alcohol to treat their “allergy.”
Oriental Flushing Reflex
A well-documented allergy (actually an intolerance) to alcohol is “Oriental flushing reflex.” Asians are most likely to experience it. It causes reddening of the skin or flushing, among other symptoms.
Those who suffer this condition quickly experience various unpleasant reactions after drinking 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 a strong craving or to want to drink more. The only way to prevent its very unpleasant symptoms is to abstain from alcohol.
That’s because suffers are “allergic” to alcohol and allergies don’t cause cravings. People sometimes cite the Oriental flushing reflex as a reason for the 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. It would cause a desire to avoid it.
Every human produces alcohol naturally within their bodies 24/7. Yet they don’t experiencing any strongcravings and loss of control. How does the theory that alcoholism is an allergy explain this fact?
Allergies to Substances often in Alcoholic Beverages
Some people do have allergies to substances frequently found in beer, wine, or spirits.
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. One to sulphates might increase asthmatic symptoms in asthmatics. And one to histamines might cause swelling and congestion of the nose.
Symptoms of allergies to those allergens sometimes found in alcoholic beverages could include headaches, rapid heartbeat, heartburn, nausea, or vomiting.5
III. Theory & Evidence
The A.A. theory that alcoholism is an allergy to alcohol that creates cravings for more alcohol is illogical. A.A.’s theory is inconsistent with medical knowledge about allergies. And it completely lacks any scientific supporting evidence.
How does the allergy theory explain this inconsistent fact? When alcoholics unknowingly drink alcohol, they do not develop a craving. Nor do they lose control over drinking it? However, if they falsely believe that they have consumed alcohol, they report great cravings?
How does the allergy theory explain another highly inconsistent fact? Alcoholic priests regularly drink communion wine without having a great 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 it.
In 1975, A.A. 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 Dr. Silkworth’s illogical and unsupported speculation. And he popularized it in his “The Doctor’s Opinion” in successive editions of A.A.’s “Big Book.”7
IV. A.A. Still Supports Theory
However, A.A.’s brief recognition was just a “slip.” A.A. 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 is, that alcoholism is an allergy.9
An A.A. member wrote that at a meeting the group was studying Dr. Silkworth’s opinion. When the member informed the group that alcoholism is not a allergy, there was very strong disagrement.10
This isn’t surprising. A.A. repeatedly insists that an alcoholic “is allergic to alcohol.”11 Members assert that “Alcoholics are allergic to alcohol….they have an allergic reaction to alcohol, which is unlike anything ever experienced by normal drinkers.”12
V. Is Alcoholism an Allergy to Alcohol?
No. The theory that alcoholism is an allergy to alcoholism is clearly false. It’s illogical, It lacks any scientific evidence. Even worse, it’s inconsistent with the nature of allergies.
The allergy theory of alcoholism is only one of A.A.’s mistaken beliefs. Another, “powerlessness,” may contribute to the general ineffectiveness of A.A. and other 12 step programs. They tend to be counterproductive. They’re less effective than doing nothing.
An alternative is to choose a free or virtually free 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).
- SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety).
VII. Resources: Is Alcoholism an Allergy?
Anon. An Alcoholic Can Not Drink in Moderation. How to Survive website.
____. Dr. William Duncan Silkworth: 1873 – 1951. A.A. Grapevine, 1951 (April).
____. Dr. Silkworth’s Rx for sobriety. A.A. Grapevine, 1945 (June).
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., et al. Loss of control drinking in alcoholics. 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).
____. The doctor’s opinion. In Alcoholics Anonymous. NY: Works, 1939, p. 1.
Lamm, B. Is alcoholism an allergy? Duke U. Medicine/Share Care website.
S., Danny. Buying the alcoholic “allergy” theory. Cape Cod Today, September 8, 2008.
4. Anderson, K. Myths From Drug And Alcohol Rehab.
5. Kerr, M. Alcohol Allergies. HealthLine website, May 4, 2012.
6. A.A. Living Sober. NY: A.A. World Ser, 1975, p. 68.
7. Heather, N., & Robertson, I. Controlled Drinking. NY: Methuen, 1983.
8. A.A.-Israel site.
12. Allergy to Alcohol.