If you’re East or Southeast Asian, you’re probably very familiar with the alcohol flushing reaction, otherwise known as the “Asian glow.” After one or two drinks, your face and body will turn redder than a sun-dried tomato, and people will start asking you if you somehow got sunburned at the bar or at a party that night.
The blushing response is the result of a genetic idiosyncrasy. More specifically, it is an inherited deficiency with an enzyme called aldehyde deydrogenase 2 (ALDH2). This genetic variant itself is called ALDH2*2 and affects about 8 percent of the world’s population.
While the glow is often just an embarrassing thing that can happen on a night out, more and more researchers are discovering that it can even have life-threatening effects on the human body. Stanford scientists published a paper in the journal Jan. 25 Science Translate Medicine which found that those with the flushing gene variant may have a higher risk of heart disease. The findings suggest that those with the variant may want to reconsider their drinking habits.
Specifically, the variant causes blood vessel inflammation in response to alcohol consumption. This restricts blood flow throughout the body and can lead to coronary artery disease.
“We found that mice carrying this variant have reduced vascular dilation,” Joseph Wu, director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and co-author of the study, told The Daily Beast in an email. “When treated with alcohol, mice with this variant showed increased vascular size, increased vascular thickness, and decreased vascular contraction and relaxation.”
The authors found that people who participated in the new study and had ALDH2*2 experienced decreased vascular function even after just modest alcohol consumption or “one standard drink,” Wu said. This means that any amount of alcohol is potentially dangerous for people with the variant, especially if you already have aggravating factors, such as a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.
However, there was a glimmer of hope. The researchers found that a diabetes drug called empagliflozin appeared to have a nullifying effect on symptoms in cultured human cells. It also improved blood vessel function in mice. Due to the variant, the drug could potentially help people at risk for heart disease.
But Wu cautioned that the drug doesn’t “directly stimulate ALDH2 activity,” meaning it doesn’t target the flush response. Therefore, it will not diminish your glow if you have it. “However, our studies have shown that empagliflozin could potentially be used as a preventative measure against vascular disease, especially in high-risk patients, such as ALDH2*2 carriers who drink excessively,” he explains.
This only adds to the evidence that drinking is actually horrible for people with the alcohol flush variety. Studies have not only shown that it can damage your DNA, but it also increases your risk of cancer. Drinking is also just terrible for you in general, but especially when you have the glow.
So in the meantime, it’s important to remember that line from all those beer commercials and drink responsibly, especially when you’re glowing red hot when you knock back a few. Heck, it’s probably a better idea to cut it out altogether. That is of course a lot easier said than done.
“We realize that it is very difficult for people to completely abstain from alcohol for several reasons,” Wu said. “That’s why we encourage people with this variant to be aware of the strong scientific findings that point to the harmful effects of alcohol and to reduce alcohol consumption as much as possible.”