Alcohol Flushing Response May Increase Chances of Heart Disease

If you’re East or Southeast Asian, you’re probably familiar with the alcohol flush response—otherwise known as the “Asian flush.” After a drink or two, your face and body will be redder than a sun-dried tomato, and people will start asking you if you somehow got sunburned at the bar or party that night.

The flushing response is the result of a genetic quirk. More specifically, it is an inherited deficiency with an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2). This same genetic variant, called ALDH2*2, affects about 8 percent of the world’s population.

While glare is often an embarrassing thing to happen at night, more and more researchers are finding that it can actually have life-threatening effects on the human body. Stanford scientists published a paper on January 25 in the journal Science Translational Medicine It found that those with the flushing gene variant had a higher risk of heart disease. The findings suggest that those with the variant may want to reconsider their drinking habits.

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Specifically, the strain 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 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 showed increased vascular size, increased vascular thickness, and impaired vascular contraction and relaxation.”

The authors found that people who participated in the new study and had ALDH2*2 had impaired vascular function after moderate alcohol consumption, or even after “one standard drink.” This means that any amount of alcohol can be dangerous for those with the variant—especially if you already have aggravating factors, such as a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol.

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However, there was a glimmer of hope. The researchers found that a diabetes drug called empagliflozin appeared to have zero effect on the symptoms in cultured human cells. It also improved blood vessel function in mice. The drug can help people who are at risk of heart attacks due to the strain.

But Wu cautioned that the drug “does not directly stimulate ALDH2 activity” — meaning it does not target the flush response. So, if you have it, it doesn’t diminish your brilliance. “However, our studies showed that empagliflozin can be used as a preventive measure against vascular disease, especially in a high-risk group of patients such as ALDH2*2 carriers who drink heavily,” he explained.

This adds to the body of evidence that drinking alcohol is actually dangerous for people with the alcohol flushing variant. Not only do studies show that it can damage your DNA, but it also increases your risk of cancer. In general, drinking is also dangerous for you – but especially if you have sparkles.

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So, in the meantime, it’s important to remember that line from all those beer commercials and drink responsibly — especially if you’re glowing beet red when you knock back a few beets. Heck, cutting it out entirely might be a better idea. Of course, that’s easier said than done.

“We understand that it’s very difficult for people to completely abstain from alcohol for a variety of reasons,” Wu said. “We therefore 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.”

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