Science Q&A

Science Q&A: Why does wine turn my face red?

New York TimesMay 11, 2014 

Q. After I have a glass of wine, my face heats up and turns bright red. This also happens to my siblings. What is going on?

A. Bright red skin after drinking, caused by dilated capillaries, is almost certainly an example of the alcohol flush reaction, related to the incomplete metabolism of alcohol. The condition is often genetic and is especially common in people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent.

Recent research on the genetically coded enzyme deficiency involved in the reaction has linked it to a higher risk of esophageal cancer in East Asians.

When alcohol is ingested, it is first metabolized primarily by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). The resulting chemical, acetaldehyde, is a carcinogen. The next step in metabolism is normally for the acetaldehyde to be metabolized to acetate, chiefly by the enzyme ALDH2.

If the drinker’s body makes that enzyme in a faulty variety, however, its action is weak or absent, and acetaldehyde builds up in the body. This leads to the flushing reaction, as well as to nausea and rapid heartbeat.

Q. Is it best to sleep on your back, side or stomach?

A. “This mainly matters if you have sleep apnea, which is often worse on your back,” said Dr. Carl W. Bazil, director of the division of epilepsy and sleep at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. “Snoring is often worse as well, as many bed partners can attest.”

Otherwise, for adults, it is much more important what position is most comfortable, Bazil said. Even in a favored position, though, nerve compression can occur if you do not move during sleep. Fortunately, the body tends to reposition itself naturally.

Since 1992, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that babies should sleep on their backs, even if being put down for a short nap.

Although causality has not been shown, sleeping on the stomach is one of the known risk factors associated with sudden infant death syndrome – SIDS – along with general stress, exposure to tobacco smoke and overheating.

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