Flushing red in the face when you imbibe alcohol may seem like a minor thing, but a recent study suggests it might be a red flag, literally.
The study, done in Korea and published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research in November 2013, looked at medical information from 1,763 men and found that the "flushers" had a higher risk of developing high blood pressure.
The "flushers" comprised 527 of the men studied. 948 of the subjects drank alcohol, but did not experience facial flushing. The remaining 288 didn't drink at all. Researchers found that when flushers drank more than four alcoholic beverages per week, their risk of high blood pressure was more than double that of non-flushers. Non-flushers' risk of developing high blood pressure also increased when they consumed more than eight alcoholic drinks on a weekly basis.
Researchers adjusted for age, body mass index, exercise and smoking status, and still the link held.
The medical community has long known that alcohol consumption raises the risk of high blood pressure, but the new information suggests that those who experience flushing after drinking may be at risk with lower consumption levels.
While the study was only done on men, some women flush after drinking, too.
Why do some people flush and others don't? The phenomenon is linked to the ALDH2 gene, which controls a person's ability to break down acetaldehyde, the first metabolite of alcohol. Flushers break down the substance less efficiently, and it builds up in the body.
It is unclear whether the buildup of acetaldehyde causes high blood pressure. Researchers speculate that it may dilate the blood vessels in the skin and peripheral areas of the body, decreasing blood flow to the central organs. The body may attempt to compensate for this by secreting hormones that raise blood pressure, the researchers stated.
People of east Asian descent flush more often after drinking than those of other ethnicity. This may prompt medical professionals to consider their patients' "flushing" status and ethnic background when assessing hypertension risk.
Not everyone who flushes red after a glass of wine may be at risk. Sometimes the redness can be caused by an intolerance to ingredients in the beverage, often mistakenly referred to as an alcohol allergy. Substances that people commonly react to are sulfites or other preservatives, chemicals, grains or histamine, a byproduct of the fermentation or brewing process. In these cases, a person may react only to certain alcoholic beverages (like red wine) and not others (like beer).
Taking certain antibiotics or antifungal medications while drinking alcohol may also trigger a skin reaction. Also, combining the drug disulfiram (Antabuse) for alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse with alcohol can cause flushing, racing heartbeat, nausea and vomiting.
Even if you don't flush after a few, it's still not license to liquor it up. More than eight drinks a week was correlated with high blood pressure levels in non-flushers. Too much alcohol is also linked to health problems such as liver damage, cancer, dementia, depression, seizures, nerve damage and pancreatitis.
And don't assume if you are a teetotaler that you are off the hook for blood pressure dangers, either. Dr. Wilfrid Corredera, a family practice physician at Family Medical Group in Lake Placid, sees new patients come into the office with high blood pressure daily. Often called a "silent killer," hypertension is mostly symptomless and is typically only discovered through regular blood pressure checks.
Those under 40 years of age should have their blood pressure checked annually, recommended Corredera, and more frequently if there is a family history or other predisposing factors. After age 40, low-risk people should get checked every six months since hypertension risk goes up with age.
Left unchecked, high blood pressure can cause all kinds of damage to the body, most commonly diminished kidney function, said Corredera.
"The most serious (effects) are cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes and congestive heart failure," he said.
Will Corredera be screening his patients for facial flushing when assessing their risk for high blood pressure? Not yet. He'd like to see the study's methodology reviewed by some well-known medical journals first.
"(The study) suggests that flushing may be a marker for either current or future hypertension," Corredera said, but more research needs to be done.