The Genetics Behind the “Asian Flush”

Fagjun | Published 2018-01-02 20:01

One in three people with East Asian heritage have the so-called “Asian Flush”, or the propensity to go very red in the face when drinking. Thus, if you get embarrassingly red after a couple of beers even when you’re not drunk yet, you’re not alone.


What causes Asian flush? [Image by Brooks et al, PLOS Med 2009]

What causes Asian flush? [Image by Brooks et al, PLOS Med 2009]

 

If you have East Asian heritage and your face, without fail, flushes when you’re drinking alcohol, it’s not because you’re a wuss. It’s likely because of your genetics. You’re probably one of the lucky ones who inherited a deficiency in aldehyde dehydrogenase, an enzyme involved in breaking down the alcohol we ingest. It may be embarrassing and you probably catch a lot of grief from your friends because of it, but even so, it may be worth exploring the mechanisms behind the Asian flush.

 

Surprisingly, there’s also more to this deficiency than an embarrassing flush. There are health effects, both negative and positive, borne out of this.



A Genetic Party Pooper


Are your genes keeping you from having a good time?

Are your genes keeping you from having a good time?

 

Thus, there’s both good and bad news. The bad news is that inheriting a full or partial aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency means that you get the full brunt of alcohol’s negative effects after drinking it. There’s nausea, dizziness, headaches, a rising heart rate, sweating—basically like an instant hangover or a bad panic attack.

 

Now, the good news is that these effects make drinking alcohol particularly unpleasant. This means that people of East Asian descent are far less likely to develop alcoholism and other alcohol-related health problems. However, if you do still drink a lot of alcohol while having aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency, you have a higher risk of developing alcohol-related cancers. This means that those with only a partial deficiency are more prone to these cancers, since a partial deficiency affords them a higher tolerance for alcohol.

 

How should people with aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency handle the condition?

How should people with aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency handle the condition?

 

Still, even if aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency occurs in one in three East Asians, it’s not like you won’t see any East Asians partying. Research on Asian-American college students has shown that even though alcohol may have undesirable effects, peer pressure and drinking culture can outweigh these effects.

 

However, people with aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency should avoid drinking alcohol altogether, or at least avoid drinking too much.

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