George Rudy/ShutterstockDoes your face always look madly sunburnt after a couple glasses of Hennessy? You’re not alone. A drunken Internet search may have you paranoid about a plethora of serious dangers—intense allergic reactions, high blood pressure, alcoholism.
But the real reason you look like an Oompa Loompa after happy hour all comes down to science. Basically, the flushed skin is your body’s way of letting you know that it’s not metabolizing alcohol the way it should be. Blood pressure skyrockets when alcohol is consumed, and the liquid is broken down into a compound called acetaldehyde. When your body cannot metabolize the compound during this process, the blood capillaries in your face dilate, resulting in a visibly blotchy face.
The phenomena is officially dubbed as “alcohol flush reaction,” defined as a condition in which an individual develops flushes associated with erythema on the face, neck, shoulders, and in some rare cases, the entire body.
Due to genomic differences, 80 percent of East Asians suffer with the syndrome. Most Asians inherit an overactive alcohol dehydrogenase, so they break down acetaldehyde extremely quickly, sometimes up to 100 times faster. Because of this, they don’t experience the typical alcohol “buzz.” Instead, an inactive variant of the liver enzyme ALDH2 causes acetaldehyde to clear from their bloodstream at a slowed pace, instigating a significantly greater buildup of acetaldehyde and Santa-like cheeks.
Although it is less common to see this syndrome in Europeans, Africans, and Mexican-Americans, people of Jewish descent do have a higher than average chance of suffering from it.
The negative aspects of alcohol flush reaction go beyond the aesthetic downside; the defect also abets rapid heartbeat, nausea, headaches, and overall discomfort.
Unfortunately, research from South Korea has shown that among people who sip four or more drinks per week, men with alcohol flush reaction were over twice as likely to develop high blood pressure later in life than guys who didn’t suffer from the defect. This puts those affected at greater risk for heart disease, stroke, and other hypertension-related health issues.
But that doesn’t mean you need to shy away from the camera at every bar outing and happy hour you attend; although there is no cure, there are tactics to indulge yourself and minimize the rosy cheeks.
For starters, don’t start chugging cocktails to try and build up a tolerance with fingers crossed that the redness will eventually subside; unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Doctors avidly discourage this strategy as it may actually aggravate the condition.
Instead, limit your alcohol consumption; ideally, men should stick to two standard alcoholic drinks per day and women should adhere to a maximum of one alcoholic drink per day. Binge drinking will drastically overload your body, so stay away from the beer bong at parties.
But the best way to regulate the flush is to eat before or while you drink. A full stomach will protect the stomach lining against excessive alcohol irritation—and could even prevent a hangover. Fatty and carbohydrate-rich foods (pizza, bread, etc.) can stop the alcohol from entering the small intestines too quickly, slowing down the rate of alcohol absorption.
If you’re suffering with alcohol flush reaction, identify your limit and avoid exceeding it as much as possible. That may mean bidding adieu to your favorite drinks, so try this yummy mocktail in the meantime.