New research demonstrates how alcohol damages DNA in stem cells and leads to cancer, and how those with the mutated ALDH2 gene, who experience “Asian Glow”, are at the highest risk.
Asian Glow and Cancer
The correlation between Asian Glow, which is caused by the genetic mutation called ALDH2 Deficiency, and increased cancer risk has long been established. However, new research clearly demonstrates exactly how this happens. In the recent 2018 study published in Nature, researchers looked at how alcohol affected blood in mice. Specifically, they looked at Haematopoietic stem cells, which are responsible for renewing blood and creating new blood cells.
They found that when exposed to alcohol, these cells experienced damage to DNA and chromosomes. When this happens, the stem cells generate new, regular cells, but they pass this DNA damage onto them. When more of these DNA errors accumulate, this can cause the unregulated cell growth that is cancer.
This damage is not uncommon in those who drink alcohol. The good news is our cells have internal repair systems, which effectively fix these mutations before they spread and accumulate. However, they don’t catch every single mutation, and when they don’t, it increases our risk.
It is not the alcohol itself that causes this damage, but the toxic compound it is turned into when we digest it: acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is well established as a carcinogen (cancer causing agent) and is commonly found in air pollution, cigarette smoke, and certain foods and beverages in addition to alcohol. Those with ALDH2 Deficiency, the cause of Asian Glow, can’t properly break down acetaldehyde, and it accumulates to levels 10 times or more than those in individuals with a healthy ALDH2 enzyme. This means there is more opportunity for damage to occur, and makes it less likely that our repair system will catch each mutation.
In the experiment, researchers exposed mice to alcohol that had their repair systems “turned off”. These mice suffered significantly more damage. Mice with inactive ALDH2 and with their repair systems turned off suffered death after just a single dose of alcohol.
Cancers commonly caused by alcohol include cancers of the upper digestive tract, liver, colorectum, and breast. Those with ALDH2 Deficiency are, on average, 6-10 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than those with healthy ALDH2 that drink the same amount of alcohol, and up to 70 times more likely if they are heavy drinkers.
Individuals with ALDH2 Deficiency should be aware of the damage alcohol can cause and should limit intake. In addition, individuals should be aware of other common sources of acetaldehyde.
Characterized by redness of the face and skin, the Asian Glow is simply a symptom of acetaldehyde accumulating in the body. If an individual experiences this, it is an indication that they likely have ALDH2 Deficiency and are vulnerable to acetaldehyde. In addition to DNA damage, acetaldehyde build-up causes damage to proteins, leading to the inflammation that causes the redness, overheating, increased heart rate, and other symptoms that come along with Asian Glow.
For more information on ALDH2 Deficiency, please visit here.