Researchers have linked the “Asian glow,” a distinctive red flushing of the skin that appears after drinking alcohol, to a variety of diseases such as cancer.
About the “Asian glow”: There are approximately 560 million people, or about 8% of the global population, who carry the mutation known as ALDH2*2. This genetic variant is most prevalent in individuals of East Asian descent, leading to the phenomenon to be commonly referred to as the “Asian glow” or “Asian flush.”
ALDH2*2 mutation origin: The genetic mutation originated around 2,000 to 3,000 years ago in Southeast China before spreading to other East Asian countries, including South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. There are reportedly around 45% of East Asians who experience this red flushing reaction when consuming alcohol, leading some to use antihistamines to mitigate the effects, while others completely avoid alcohol due to embarrassment.
Increased risk of diseases: In a study led by Stanford Medicine and published on Jan. 25, researchers found that those with ALDH2*2 have much less defense against acetaldehyde, which can reportedly accumulate and cause harm such as liver damage, increased cancer risk and vascular dysfunction.
The ALDH2*2 mutation significantly raises the risk of various conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and esophageal cancer. Even moderate alcohol consumption increases the risk of these diseases dramatically, which can be 40 to 80 times higher than those without the mutation who drink the same amount.
Researchers note that while taking antihistamines can alleviate skin flushing, they do not lower acetaldehyde levels in the blood, which experts warn is risky as it masks the body’s natural warning signals about alcohol toxicity.
“If you’re drinking, drink less. If you’re not drinking, don’t start,” said Joseph Wu, director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and senior author of the study, in a press release.
Raising awareness: Che-Hong Chen, a molecular biologist and geneticist at the Stanford School of Medicine, believes that lack of awareness contributes to misconceptions, such as thinking that the “Asian glow” is a sign of a strong liver.
Chen founded the Taiwan Alcohol Intolerance Education Society, a nonprofit organization, in 2017 to promote education about ALDH2 deficiency and its implications. In collaboration with the Taiwanese government, Chen’s organization led to launching the first National Taiwan No Alcohol Day on May 9, 2019.