About one-third of people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent have an enzyme deficiency that causes their face to flush when they drink alcohol, a trait that puts them at a higher risk for developing esophageal cancer, according to a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine, Reuters Health reports.
The study was conducted by Philip Brooks of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and Akira Yokoyama from the Kurihama Alcohol Center in Japan.
According to Brooks, the flushing response occurs in people who have a variation of a certain gene that helps the body metabolize alcohol. People who have two copies of the gene variant have severe symptoms of flushing, nausea and heart palpitations when they consume alcohol, and many of them avoid alcohol because of the effects. Those with one copy of the gene can tolerate alcohol even though they are still at risk of esophageal cancer.
"In general, people with one copy have about a six to tenfold increase in the incidence of esophageal cancer," Brooks said, adding, "People are fairly well aware of this physical characteristic, which is sometimes called the Asian alcohol response or the Asian flush," but "I don't think people are aware that it is a warning sign for being at risk of esophageal cancer when they drink alcohol."
Brooks recommended that doctors ask patients of East Asian descent whether they have a history of facial flushing when they drink alcohol and warned that health professionals need to be aware of the link (Steenhuysen, Reuters Health, 3/23).
The study is available online.