Many people experience an adverse effect to alcohol characterized by flushes or blotches on the skin. These blotches most often appear on the face, neck, and shoulders, but may in some cases spread throughout the entire body. People susceptible to alcohol flush may also experience other unpleasant symptoms, including rapid heartbeat, nausea, dizziness, headache, and general physical discomfort. The condition can also cause respiratory reactions, including a stuffy or runny nose, as well as worsening of asthma.

Why do some people react to alcohol this way? The answer lies in a gene known as ALDH2, which helps the body metabolize alcohol. When alcohol is processed by the body, it releases a chemical compound called acetaldehyde, which is a known carcinogen and also a contributing factor in hangovers. In individuals who possess a certain ALDH2 variant, the enzyme responsible for breaking down acetaldehyde is less functional, allowing the compound to build up in the body. These individuals are more likely to experience alcohol flush and other negative reactions to alcohol.

Who is affected by alcohol flush?

The ALDH2 variant is more common in women and people of East Asian descent, which is why alcohol flush is sometimes referred to as Asian flush. Approximately 36 percent of East Asians — those from Japan, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Korea — experience alcohol flush, with the highest rate occurring in southeast China. The gene variant is rare among Europeans and Africans.

Alcohol flush and health risks

Researchers have identified an increased risk for high blood pressure associated with alcohol flush, and studies suggest people with the gene variant have a higher risk for hypertension even with moderate alcohol intake. The relationship between alcohol flush and the increased risk of hypertension is unclear, but the buildup of acetaldehyde could be at fault. Researchers believe acetaldehyde could dilate blood vessels in the skin and extremities of the body, which could decrease blood flow to the central organs. The body may try to make up for this decreased blood flow by secreting hormones that increase blood pressure.

Affected individuals may also have an increased risk of esophageal cancer if they drink alcohol. People who experience alcohol flush should limit their drinking to decrease the risk of high blood pressure and cancer.

Since alcohol flush is a genetic condition, there is no cure. Genetic testing that measures the enzymes alcohol dehydrogenases and aldehyde dehydrogenase can predict a person’s likelihood of experiencing alcohol flush.

Vivaliti DNA offers personalized genetic blueprints that evaluate the risk and likelihood of several health conditions, including alcohol flush. Your individual DNA report can provide you with a greater understanding of how your body works, which foods and exercises are best for you, and when supplementation may be recommended to help protect against vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Request a free consultation with a Vivaliti DNA health coach to learn how your individual genetic blueprint can help you optimize your health and make smarter choices every day.