For many people, having a cocktail can be a source of physical discomfort and embarrassment, caused by a condition called alcohol flush reaction (AFR). Alcohol flush reaction is characterized in part by an abnormally red or pink face after alcohol consumption. Other symptoms often develop, including dizziness and extreme sweating.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for the alcohol flush rash reaction. The condition comes down to a conflict between genetics and alcohol consumption. While it can happen to anyone, higher percentages of men and women within the Asian population experience alcohol flush reaction.
The Glow of Alcohol Flush
No one is sure why such a high percentage of Asians possess the genetic mutation that causes AFR. Some researchers suggest that as much as fifty percent of the Asian population experiences symptoms of AFR while drinking alcoholic beverages. For some, it may take only a few sips to trigger alcohol flush reaction. For others, symptoms appear only after several drinks. Because Asians are the ethnic group most often affected, alcohol flush reaction is often referred to as the “Asian glow.” However, Native Americans are highly susceptible to this condition, as well.
The first symptoms of alcohol flush reaction are perhaps the most embarrassing. AFR starts with increased warmth in the neck, head and facial area. The entire body can break out in sweat. Facial flushing ranges from mildly pink to bright red or purple.
Other symptoms can be mild to severe, including:
- blood pressure drop
- blotched skin
- facial swelling
- racing pulse
- stomach bleeding
While it is rare, extreme cases of alcohol flush reaction can be fatal. In addition to the above side effects, victims of AFR can also become intoxicated at a faster rate than normal, which can be dangerous.
The Body”s Reaction to Alcohol
Once you have a sip of alcohol, it immediately enters your bloodstream through your stomach and small intestine, where special enzymes go to work. Enzymes exist in all living cells, and each has a unique function. First, ADH (alcohol dehydrogenase) turns alcohol into a toxic substance known as acetaldehyde. This is similar in makeup to formaldehyde.
ALDH2 (aldehyde dehydrogenase-2) is the second enzyme at work, which converts acetaldehyde into a vinegar type substance called acetic acid. From here, other enzymes contribute to the process of creating carbon dioxide and water.
Your liver then goes to work to process the alcohol before the body can eliminate these fluids. However, your liver can only remove alcohol byproducts at a certain rate. The remaining carbon dioxide and water continues circulating in the body. This leads to the feeling of intoxication and, in some cases, hangovers.
Alcohol Flush Reaction and the Mutant Enzyme
Researchers have found that the enzyme ALDH2 is one of the links between alcohol and genetics. Those who experience alcohol flush reaction have a missing or deficient ALDH2 enzyme. This mutation is inherited from one or both parents. Even when healthy ALDH2 enzymes are present, the defective enzyme is dominant.
The good news is that a certain amount of healthy ALDH2 enzymes will sometimes reduce the more drastic effects of the abnormal enzyme. In other words, a percentage of victims will merely experience facial flushing or other mild symptoms.
The inability to process acetaldehyde in an efficient way leaves it to accumulate in the system. This is the cause of the “flush” and the range of mild to severe effects from varying amounts of consumption. Over extended periods, acetaldehyde can cause damage to organs and other tissues. Experts advise that when a flush reaction occurs, an individual should stop drinking. This allows time to process the existing alcohol.
Treating Alcohol Flush Reaction
There is currently no cure for alcohol flush reaction. The fact remains that alcoholism rates are lower among Asian groups, possibly due to the adverse reactions of AFR. Indeed, those who abstain or lightly indulge are protecting their bodies from potential liver damage and other side effects.
Experts suggest that consuming certain foods before drinking may help, especially those that contain starches to coat the stomach. Some say that products containing sugar and vitamin B-3 may reduce the effects of a flush. Sugary alcoholic drinks, as well, may help keep symptoms at bay. Products to avoid include irritants such as pain relievers and spicy foods.
Victims of AFR often search for their own remedies. Some victims recommend taking over-the-counter products that contain Famotidine, a popular heartburn and stomach acid reliever. While it has not been scientifically proven, some people say that Famotidine plays a role in relieving facial warmth. While it may reduce flushing effects, Famotidine does not eliminate the risks of ingesting too much alcohol. No quantitative studies suggest this is an effective use of these products.
While it may be embarrassing and uncomfortable, your body”s discomfort towards alcohol should be treated as a sign. Physical discomfort is often an indicator that something”s not right within your body. It”s important to follow your body”s response to reduce or avoid the symptoms of alcohol flush reaction.