I’m one of the fortunate few who can enjoy a few glasses of wine without turning bright red in the face after just a few sips. For some of my fellow Asian friends, however, a night out on the booze can become more of an uncomfortable experience than an enjoyable one. That’s because they suffer from a condition colloquially known as Asian flush or Asian glow.
So what is it that causes this infamous glow? The correct term is Alcohol Flush Syndrome and it mostly affects people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese descent — around 47 to 53 per cent.
“I’m not Asian, why do I go red when I drink?” asked one of my Caucasian friends. While it’s much more prominent in Asian people, the condition can also be found in Caucasians and Africans, but it is very rare.
The flush is caused by an inactive enzyme in the liver required to break down the harmful byproducts of alcohol. Alcohol breakdown in the body goes a little like this: an enzyme called ADH reacts with the ethanol to produce Acetaldehyde; another enzyme called ALDH2 then breaks down the toxic Acetaldehyde into Acetate, which is easy for the body to eliminate.
"People with this ALHD2 deficiency have a really high risk of getting oesophageal cancer when they drink alcohol."
People affected by Asian flush carry a defective gene which interferes with that last crucial step, causing the toxic Acetaldehyde to float around in their system for much longer than the rest of the population. To make matters worse, their body turns ethanol into Acetaldehyde up to 100 times faster than everyone else’s.
Other than the inconvenience of people thinking you’re way more drunk than you really are, research suggests that if you suffer from Asian flush, your risk of getting oesophageal cancer is also heightened as Acetaldehyde is carcinogenic in humans. “People with this ALHD2 deficiency have a really high risk of getting oesophageal cancer when they drink alcohol,” says Philip J. Brooks, whose paper on the link between Asian flush and oesophageal cancer was published by the Public Library of Science.
If you’re like one of my friends, who says his “drinking game changed forever” when someone told him about the wonders of Zantac in combatting Asian flush, you might want to rethink your strategy. Yes, antihistamines that target H2 receptors do reduce the redness and help fight the flush, they also slow down the metabolism of alcohol. As a result, your blood alcohol level rises at a much higher rate after taking antihistamines and drinking.
So while all things are good in moderation, those who suffer from Asian flush are recommended to limit alcohol consumption as much as possible. But if you must have a few drinks, just embrace the flush and avoid pictures!
Top image courtesy of Flickr / Terence Lim