If you’re from East or Southeast Asia, you’re probably very familiar with the alcohol flush reaction, otherwise known as the “Asian glow.” After a drink or two, your face and body turn redder than a sun-dried tomato, and people start asking if you got sunburned at the bar or at the party that night.
The flushing response is the result of a genetic oddity. More specifically, it is an inherited deficiency of an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2). This genetic variant itself is called ALDH2*2 and affects approximately 8% of the world’s population.
While glow is often just an embarrassing thing that can happen during a night out, more and more researchers are discovering that it can actually have life-threatening effects on the human body. Stanford scientists published an article on January 25 in the journal Science Translation Medicine which found that people with the flushing gene variant may have a higher risk of heart disease. The findings suggest that those with the variant might want to reconsider their drinking habits.
Specifically, the variant causes blood vessel inflammation in response to alcohol consumption. This restricts the flow of blood throughout the body and can lead to coronary heart disease.
“We found that mice carrying this variant had impaired 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 exhibited enlarged vascular size, increased vascular thickness, and impaired vascular contraction and relaxation.”
The authors found that people in the new study who had ALDH2*2 had impaired vascular function, even after modest alcohol consumption or “one standard drink,” Wu said. 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 silver lining. Researchers found that a diabetes drug called empagliflozin appeared to have a symptom-cancelling effect in cultured human cells. It also improved blood vessel function in mice. The drug might be able to help humans at risk for heart disease due to the variant.
But Wu cautioned that the drug does not “directly stimulate ALDH2 activity”, meaning it does not target the flushing response. Therefore, it will not diminish your radiance if you have it. “However, our studies showed that empagliflozin could potentially be used as a preventive measure against vascular disease, especially in the high-risk cohort of patients such as ALDH2*2 carriers who drink excessively,” said he explained.
This only adds to the body of evidence that drinking alcohol is actually horrible for people with the alcohol flush variant. Not only have studies shown that it can damage your DNA, but it also increases your risk of cancer. Drinking is also just plain terrible for you in general, but especially if you have the glow.
So in the meantime, it’s important to remember that line of all those beer commercials and drink responsibly, especially if you glow bright red when you spill a few. Heck, it’s probably a better idea to cut it entirely. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.
“We realize that it is very difficult for people to completely abstain from alcohol for various reasons,” Wu said. “Therefore, we encourage people with this variant to be aware of the strong scientific findings that indicate the harmful effects of alcohol and to reduce their alcohol consumption as much as possible.”