Many people experience a red facial flushing whenever they drink alcohol. This is actually quite common and occurs in varying severity across many different races around the world. The official name given to this disorder is alcohol flush reaction, however due to its prevalence amongst Asian drinkers, it has received the more colloquial name Asian flush.
The purpose of this article is to explain precisely why you experience this red face when you drink alcohol. In order to do this it is first necessary to talk about how alcohol is processed by our bodies.
It all starts with alcohol metabolism
Just like when we eat food or consume anything, when we drink alcohol our bodies undergo a process to metabolize it. As a part of this process, an extremely toxic by-product is released called acetaldehyde. In normal alcohol drinkers who do not suffer from alcohol flush reaction, this toxic by-product is broken down into a harmless non-toxic substance by an enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase.
Unfortunately, alcohol flush sufferers are born with a genetic mutation that causes a deficiency in the acetaldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme, thus preventing it from being able to adequately convert to toxic acetaldehyde into a harmless non-toxic substance. In turn, this acetaldehyde builds up in the body and causes various reactions like a red swollen face, neck, body, etc.
Here is a short video describing the process:
Want that in more simple terms?
Your face goes red when you drink alcohol because of a problem you’re born with. This problem makes it harder for your body to process alcohol properly. Because of this, when you drink alcohol your body is failing to break down some of the more toxic chemicals in the alcohol and as a result these toxic chemicals are making their way into your system and causing all kinds of bad reactions like a red face, headache, difficulty breathing, etc.
Is the red face the result of an allergy?
Usually when we see symptoms like a red rash, headaches, difficulty breathing and nausea, we usually think it has something to do with an allergic reaction. Allergies are, however, when our immune systems react adversely to substances that are normally harmless.
As discussed above, in the case of alcohol flushing, our bodies are reacting to a substance called acetaldehyde which is by its very nature toxic. The only reason everyone doesn’t react to this substance whenever they drink alcohol is because most people have the requisite enzyme that the body uses to break it down into a harmless non-toxic substance. Therefore, rather than being a allergic reaction to an otherwise harmless substance, alcohol flushing is more accurately characterized as a reaction to a harmfully toxic substance that our bodies are failing to break down because of a genetic enzyme deficiency.
How harmful is it?
Earlier in this article we spoke about this harmfully toxic substance being called acetaldehyde. There has been a lot of research conducted on this substance and the results are quite alarming to say the least.
It is not our intention to alarm readers, but it is necessary to state the facts as they are. To date, the US department of health along with various international cancer research bodies have highlighted acetaldehyde as being a highly carcinogenic substance that can lead to a significantly higher chance of developing particular cancers, especially in the esophagus and throat area.
Warning signal for cancer
Generally when our bodies react negatively to something it creates an aversion that prevents us from continuing to do it. Looked at from this perspective, you might be experiencing a red face when you drink alcohol as some kind of warning sign that you are doing something that could be potentially very harmful in the long run.
To the extent that the aforementioned research holds true, people who suffer from alcohol flush reaction may in fact be at a much higher risk of developing certain cancers if they continue to put acetaldehyde into their bodies by consuming alcohol. If you are experiencing a red face, nausea, headaches, difficulty breathing, or any other unpleasant symptom, then perhaps it is your body telling you to stop drinking alcohol.
Should I stop drinking alcohol?
The short answer is yes, you should probably stop drinking alcohol. This is what your body is telling you to do and it is what the balance of scientific research is indicating you should do too.
That said, we are not medical practitioners nor do we have any qualifications that would permit us to be making any recommendations to people about how to go about avoiding putting themselves at a heightened risk of certain cancers. You should read our views as an informative wake up call and then seek proper medical advice from your medical practitioner.
When speaking to your medical practitioner, you should mention that you have alcohol flush reaction and that you lack the necessary enzymes to break down acetaldehyde like every one else. If your practitioner is not familiar with this genetic condition we suggest finding one that is. Otherwise you will receive advice tailored for normal alcohol drinkers who have the capacity to break down acetaldehyde. This may not only prove unhelpful for you, but also potentially dangerous in the long run when you consider the cancer risks mentioned above.
What if I want to continue drinking?
We’ve established that your red face from drinking alcohol can be likened to a warning sign of sorts. Its your body telling you not to drink and rightfully so when you consider the scientific research about the looming cancer risks for alcohol flush sufferers.
That said, completely eliminating alcohol from one’s life can be easier said than done. Whether it be a social or professional context, there is usually a strong emphasis on drinking alcohol with others. Beyond the its obvious inebriating effect, alcohol is also an important means of bonding and an avenue to meeting new people. As a result, some people might see stopping alcohol altogether as also stopping all the positive aspects that come with it.
If you know why your face goes red when you drink and are fully aware of the dangers associated with the condition, yet you want to continue to drink alcohol for whatever reason, then it is very important that you approach it in a way that reduces the risk of doing long term damage to yourself. If you are interested, please read on about 3 ways you can drink without a red face.