The origin of alcohol can be traced back to as early as the time of the great pyramid of Giza where the workers were paid with beer. Although your adult reward and pleasure systems are blinking right now at the thought of receiving drinks for a job well done -there is enough evidence to suggest some genes play a role on your overall reaction to alcohol and its unwanted side effects.
These ‘drinking’ genes code for enzymes that play an underlying role of metabolizing ethanol (substance we refer to as “drinking alcohol”). When we drink alcohol, there are physiological changes that occur in our heart, brain and liver. Let’s dig into what happens and focus in on the liver when we sip the flammable liquid we call alcohol.
How do our bodies metabolize alcohol?
When ethanol is absorbed through the stomach into our bloodstream, our brain and liver are affected. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver where the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase breaks down alcohol and converts it into acetaldehyde. This byproduct is a toxic substance and therefore eliminated (in the urine) by the second break down which occurs when the same enzyme converts acetaldehyde into acetate.
The alcohol flush reaction
ALDH2 is the gene responsible for acetaldehyde break down in alcohol metabolism. It does so by producing the enzyme (alcohol dehydrogenase) that turns the ethanol into acetaldehyde in the liver. The negative side effects from alcohol consumption are related to the increased levels of acetaldehyde in the bloodstream.
Depending on the variant of the gene, you can have a ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ version of the alcohol dehydrogenase, which in turn determines your reaction to alcohol. If an individual carries the variant that slows down the conversion from acetaldehyde (toxic) to acetic acid, there is a bad reaction when alcohol is consumed. The accumulation of this toxic byproduct causes nausea, headaches, dry mouth and face flushing. Due to these negative effects, the slow variants are much less likely to become alcoholics.
The alcohol flush reaction or commonly known as “Asian Flush” is no fluke. The genetic variant of ALDH2 deficiency is present in about 30% to 40% of East Asian descent and the answer lies in evolutionary science. As we learn from history, the theory dates back 16,000 years ago in East Asia where alcohol production began and demonstrates that people who carry this variant were less likely to become alcoholics and thus triumph at survival of the fittest in passing it onto their offspring.
Although the symptoms may appear too similar, alcohol flush should not be confused with alcohol allergy. An allergy is a chain reaction that occurs in the body by a trigger substance that is detected as harmful whereas the flush reaction is the inability to metabolize alcohol correctly.
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