If you’re like me, you may notice your face looking and feeling flushed after a few drinks. Casual observers may think you can’t handle your alcohol, and they are actually right. But this isn’t a case of failing to drink responsibly—it boils down to science, and more specifically, genetics.
According to Dr. Amitava Dasgupta, a professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, reddened skin is a result of your body’s inability to metabolize alcohol efficiently. When you consume alcohol, your body breaks it down into a compound known as acetaldehyde, and from there into acetate. However, if your body cannot quickly metabolize the acetaldehyde, which is poisonous, blood capillaries in your face dilate, causing a flushed, blotchy appearance.
“If you drink two glasses of wine really fast, like more than two in one hour, your body can’t get rid of acetaldehyde fast enough, so your face may turn red,” Dr. Dasgupta explained.
Interestingly, genetics play a significant role in the body’s ability to process alcohol. About 80 percent of East Asians experience this alcohol flush reaction due to inheriting an under-active copy of the gene responsible for metabolizing acetaldehyde into acetate (called ALDH2). In fact, their bodies break down acetaldehyde much slower than the average person. As someone of Vietnamese descent, I can attest to this process (which is sometimes even referred to as “Asian Flush”).
While we don’t experience the typical buzzy effect from drinking, there are several other side effects of this genetic condition, including red cheeks, rapid heartbeat, nausea, headaches and overall discomfort. Because of these adverse reactions, people with this genetic mutation are less likely to drink, according to Dr. Dasgupta.
One study even suggests that those who get a red flush reaction while drinking may be more susceptible to damaging their DNA from drinking alcohol. Researchers found that the flush-related gene makes it four times more likely to have DNA damage after just one dose of alcohol.
For those seeking to minimize the rosy red reaction from alcohol, it is important to limit alcohol consumption and avoid trying to overindulge in an effort to build up tolerance. Men should not exceed two alc*holic drinks per day, and women should stick to just one.
Luckily for my fellow flushed friends, there are many non-alc*holic drink recipes available that will keep you refreshed rather than red. And if you’re going to imbibe, make sure to stay alert to your body’s reaction before you order your next drink.