You may have experienced it yourself or seen it in your parents or peers—your faces turning a noticeable shade of red after just one or two drinks.
The alcohol flush reaction, often known as “Asian glow,” is triggered by a genetic mutation that affects how the body metabolizes alcohol. Far from being a minor annoyance, this reaction serves as a potent indicator of heightened susceptibility to severe health risks, including various cancers and cardiovascular diseases.
“Crazy Rich Asians” star Awkwafina even poked fun at it in an Instagram selfie with John Cho, Lana Condor, Jenny Han and Constance Wu, writing, “The pink light really brings out our communal Asian glow. Or maybe we were all extremely drunk at the time. Either way everyone in this pic inspires me and I love them.”
Experts advise that those who experience this reaction to significantly limit their alcohol intake or abstain entirely. The genetic mutation, known as the ALDH22 variant, elevates the risk of various diseases, including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and esophageal cancer. Someone with the ALDH22 variant who consumes alcohol moderately faces a 40 to 80 times higher risk of esophageal cancer than a person without the mutation who drinks the same amount.
The ALDH2*2 variant is also associated with head and neck cancers, gastric cancer, coronary artery disease, stroke, and osteoporosis in East Asian populations.
The root cause of the alcohol flush reaction lies in a deficiency of a critical enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol in the body. Those with the mutation produce an enzyme called mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2) with very low activity. Consequently, alcohol isn’t metabolized effectively, leading to the accumulation of toxic acetaldehyde in the bloodstream.
Even a small amount of alcohol, such as two cans of beer, can result in elevated levels of acetaldehyde, which is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
Dr. Che-Hong Chen at Stanford University School of Medicine told The Washington Post that the red flush should be seen as a warning.
“Think of it as your body having a pain sensation to tell you to stop drinking.”