A missing enzyme in the body causes 8 percent of the world to flush red after alcohol consumption, triggering “Asian glow.” Research shows that in addition to creating the glow, the missing enzyme makes people who get the glow more prone to getting cancer if they drink too much alcohol.
According to research done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and Japan’s Kurihama Alcohol Center, heavy alcohol consumption greatly increases the risk for esophageal cancer among individuals lacking the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2). Alcohol flush reaction (Asian glow) is a marker of the enzyme deficiency and symptoms of facial flushing affect 36 percent of East Asians.
ALDH2 is crucial in alcohol metabolism, during which it breaks down acetaldehyde, a harmful chemical known to cause DNA damage and other cancer-promoting effects, into acetate, a harmless chemical. Those with a defective enzyme cannot properly break down acetaldehyde, allowing it to build up in the blood to result in an increased risk of esophageal cancer.
According to Dr. Philip J. Brooks of NIAAA’s Laboratory of Neurogenetics, a co-author of the study, at least 540 million people have this alcohol-related increased risk for esophageal cancer. In the United States, there are probably 1.5 million people who have the ALDH2 deficiency.
Research shows that people who flush when they drink the equivalent of 33 or more U.S. standard drinks per week have an 89-fold increased risk of esophageal cancer compared to non-drinkers, putting heavy drinkers at risk.
“This is unfortunate because most of the Asians I know have ‘Asian flush.’ It personally does not make a huge impact on me because I don’t drink much alcohol to start out, but it’s good for me to know,” said Yuri Chung, 21, a Social Policy graduate. “I already knew that turning red wasn’t a good sign…but I’m not sure that this will deter Asians from drinking because I feel like drinking is a large part of Asian culture.”
Despite the recent links to cancer, it remains highly doubtful that the scare will be enough to change ingrained culture that surrounds alcohol. “In Korea, there’s a lot of social drinking. A lot of these customs are brought over to America in fairly new immigrants. We already know that too much alcohol consumption is not too good for you,” Chung said.
“It’s like cigarettes. People know that many cigarettes are directly linked to cancer, but they do it for immediate benefits. Alcohol provides the same benefits to people who are already in heavy drinking situations—it’ll be difficult to break an addiction and cultural social habit,” said Chung.
“There are people who have this flushing response who should talk to their doctor about limiting their alcohol consumption. If taking Pepcid AC or other drugs allows them to continue drinking, that’s really a danger. It’s not going to prevent the esophageal cancer risk,” said Brooks.
The risk, which will increase with each shot, glass, or pitcher of alcohol consumed, should make those who glow more aware of their drinking habits.
“I think the cancer risk will affect people for sure—I’m sure if it becomes publicized, everyone who does get Asian glow will be more aware of how much they’re drinking. You’d be foolish not be concerned if this is true,” said senior Martin Lin, 21, an economics and mathematics major in Weinberg.
Brooks stressed the importance of being aware of the effects of alcohol and understanding that the flush reaction is not meaningless.
“We hope that some number of people in the world will never get esophageal cancer who otherwise would because they will learn of this risk … the earlier people learn of the risk, and the earlier they can limit the alcohol consumption, the better,” Brooks said.