What Exactly is ‘Alcohol Flush Syndrome’?

Have you ever looked in the mirror after drinking and noticed that your face had taken on a reddish hue? Or maybe you’ve just felt an overall discomfort when drinking?

You could be experiencing side effects of alcohol flush syndrome.

This flush, or reddening, is a reaction some people have when they consume alcohol. While 50 percent of East Asian people suffer from the condition, anybody can carry the gene that causes the reaction.

It occurs as a result of an improper breakdown of alcohol in the body. To explain this occurrence, let’s start with how the average person breaks down alcohol.

When one drinks ethanol (the chemical term for alcohol), the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) breaks it down into acetaldehyde (CH3CHO). From there, the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) breaks it down further into acetic acid (CH3COOH), which has a similar chemical makeup as vinegar. The body is then able to get rid of the alcohol through this acetic acid, as well as through the kidneys and lungs.

For those with alcohol flush syndrome, their breakdown looks a bit different. They have an aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency, meaning the second enzyme in the process has little to no presence. As a result, acetaldehyde can’t be broken down, causing a build-up of the chemical, which is very toxic to the human body.

Symptoms include the flush, which is a result of dilated blood capillaries, increased heart rate, headache and even nausea. These are only the short term complications as esophageal cancer is a possible long-term risk.

It is recommended that if you have this syndrome you should limit your alcohol intake. If possible, eliminate it completely. While the research is inconclusive on the long term risks, it is still best to reduce the amount of acetaldehyde that is sitting in your system for long periods of time.

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Photo credit: Kārlis Dambrāns

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