Is "The Asian Glow" Real? 5 Facts About The Drinking Phenomenon, Explained

It happened to me at my first high school party. I was halfway through a Miller Lite (classy, I know) when I felt my heart beating out of my face. After a few confused glances from bystanders, I rushed to the bathroom to see everything on me — my cheeks, forehead, neck, arms and legs — flushed a scarlet shade of red. It wasn't until I got to college when I learned that I was a victim of the Asian glow. 

It was tough during my freshman year, when all my friends were taking pictures at parties, holding Solo cups, and I was avoiding the camera at all costs. Why would I want my blotchy face to be documented? Luckily, I made a few Asian friends who shared my blush and my sentiment, and we did some research into why we always end up looking sunburnt after a few sips of Cabernet Sauvignon.

I discovered that the majority of folks of East Asian descent (primarily Japan, Korea, and China) also go blood red when they consume alcohol, and it is caused by one or more gene deficiencies, which I'll explain in more detail below. In short, our bodies don't process booze that well. Besides the visibly flushed skin, symptoms include headache, nausea, lightheadedness, and overall discomfort. While the concept can be fairly amusing, but the glow can be extremely uncomfortable for the Asians (and other people) who experience it. I speak from firsthand experience — it sucks. Luckily, I've learned a few tricks over the years to minimize the redness, but it's still there. 

Even if you aren't a person who blushes after a drink, you could still learn a little something about the strange phenomenon. Read on for five facts about the Asian glow. 

1. It's Officially Known As Alcohol Flush Syndrome (And Not Only Asians Have It)

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While it's affectionately called the Asian glow, I don't imagine medical professionals utilizing that term. Alcohol Flush Syndrome occurs in people whose bodies don't metabolize alcohol efficiently, similar to individuals who are lactose intolerant and cannot digest milk and other dairy products. Unlike them, however, most Asians do drink alcohol regularly; they either suck it up and deal with the symptoms or they find a way to diminish the redness, whether it's through holistic remedies or medication. Although it's prevalent in 80 percent of East Asians, it is extremely rare to see this syndrome in Europeans, Africans, and Mexican-Americans; however, it's said that people of Jewish descent have a higher than average chance of suffering from it. 

The discomfort for sufferers of Alcohol Flush Syndrome is much more than the aesthetic glow, though — often times, alcohol can make us feel anxious, increase our heart rate,  or make us dizzy. A Chinese friend of mine a few years ago half-heartedly suggested we have cocktails regularly to build up a tolerance; maybe the redness will eventually subside. Doctors enthusiastically advise against this strategy, as it may make the condition much worse. There are only management tactics available, but there is no cure for this syndrome. If you're in the same boat as me, chat with your nurse or doctor about the condition so you can have all the information you need.

2. It's The Result Of An Enzyme Deficiency

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OK, here's a little science lesson for you: There are two enzymes in the body responsible for metabolizing alcohol: alcohol dehydrogenase, which turns your gin and tonic into acetaldehyde, and acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, which processes the acetaldehyde into substances that won't harm your body. The glowing Asians (and some jewish people) break down booze into acetaldehyde 100 times faster than the average person, but we lack the liver enzyme ALDH2, which turns the acetaldehyde into something harmless.

So acetaldehyde stays in our system much longer and the overproduction of it causes blood vessels to dilate, resulting in the deep blush that rises to the surface of the skin. It is said that because this accelerated production of acetaldehyde, Asians may not feel the "buzz" like others do — but this isn't necessarily a good thing. If we're not fully aware of how much we've been drinking, it's hard for us to gauge when enough is enough. I suppose the stereotype is somewhat true: Asians with Alcohol Flush Syndrome do get drunk more easily, even if they don't feel it right away. 

3. If You Have It, You Have A Higher Cancer Risk

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Acetaldehyde is a toxic byproduct of alcohol, and because we lack the second important enzyme, ALDH2, to break it down, the excess amount can potentially be dangerous for the body. In fact, it is known as a cancer-causing agent. Dr. Victor Lee Tswen Wen, consultant surgeon at Singapore General Hospital says Asians with this gene deficiency are much more likely to develop stomach or esophageal cancer. If you suffer from this syndrome and you drink two beers a day, you are 10 times more likely than the next ALDH2 producing person to develop cancer, and your risk for gastrointestinal disease and peptic ulcers is increased.

Most Asians, including and especially me until recently, have no idea that these dangers are present. The majority of us just see the Asian glow as an endearing quality that doesn't hold much meaning, but the truth of the matter is, when left in the system for too long without being flushed out by ALDH2, acetaldehyde is a very unfriendly substance. If any of your friends or family suffer from Alcohol Flush Syndrome and are heavy drinkers, introduce them to this information and let them know you are concerned about their health and well-being.

4. People Who Suffer From It Are Less Likely To Be Alcoholics

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You can probably imagine it's hard to drink heavily when you have that kind of unpleasant reaction to alcohol. Doctors claim that's one of the main reasons why there's a lower percentage of alcoholics in this group of individuals compared to the average population, although it's not exactly unheard of. It's simply too uncomfortable and far too irritating to put yourself in that faint-headed, nervous, erythema-in-the-face physical state on a daily basis.

Apparently, researchers who concoct medications meant to help alcoholics with their addiction caught onto this notion. A drug called Disulfiram, used as treatment for alcoholism, works by inhibiting acetaldehyde dehydrogenase in the bloodstream, which increases the acetaldehyde in the body by almost tenfold. The result? The Asian glow, pretty much. They get red everywhere and feel the anxiety that comes along with too much acetaldehyde in the bloodstream, which is supposed to deter them from drinking altogether.

5. There Are Remedies To Minimize It

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I'll start by telling you the trick I use to minimize the redness — I take two Pepcid AC's (or any other anti-heartburn tablet) about an hour before I drink, and it significantly reduces the visible symptoms, even though I still feel my heart beating out of my cheeks and a slight headache. Remedies like this have no effect on the levels of acetaldehyde in your system, though. If you're on the hunt for something a little more official, you could try a new bottled drink called "Before Elixir". It's a natural combination of vitamins, plant extracts, and amino acids that is specifically designed to slow down the buildup of acetaldehyde in the body, thus helping you metabolize your wine and reduce discomfort. Studies done with this neatly bottled beverage show that it 90 percent of people with Alcohol Flush Syndrome found it to be a positive addition to their social lives.

However, experts like Dr. Lee suggest steering clear of alcohol altogether, as it could lead to lasting health issues. But, you know, that's boring. If you still want to enjoy a little liquid courage every now and then, just be conscious of what you're consuming and its alcohol content. Make sure you've got enough food in your system that will slow down the absorption rate, such as nuts and complex carbs. And, of course, don't binge — that will leave your body very unhappy the following morning.

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Images: takmeomeo/Pixabay; Giphy (5)

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