Are you familiar with the term alcohol flush reaction? Or maybe you have this condition yourself? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, then you’re probably acquainted with the other terms that are used to describe this condition which has similar reactions to an alcohol allergy or alcohol intolerance, like Asian flush syndrome or Asian glow.
These other names are not pure coincidence; individuals of Asian descent are more prone to this reaction than non-Asians, and we’ll explain why most Asians and alcohol don’t mix well together as you read further.
Asian flush, being a condition when one’s face and upper-body turns rapidly red, can occur even after only 2 sips of alcohol. This can be a big problem if all you want to do is enjoy a glass of wine over dinner, or have a martini while at an after-work party with your colleagues. So, let’s see what causes this uncomfortable reaction and what are the symptoms it produces.
Causes and Symptoms of Asian Flush Reaction
In short, alcohol flush reaction is your genetics’ fault, due to one or more gene deficiencies where one or more enzymes do not work properly when breaking down the alcohol (ethanol). In order to explain this better, let’s see how normally the body gets rid of alcohol.
We are all aware that alcohol is not good for the body, especially if taken in regular intervals and in large amounts. This is exactly the reason why once it enters our system, the body cannot wait to eliminate it and flush its toxins out. The two main enzymes responsible for this are alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). When alcohol is ingested, they are up and ready to protect us from its harmful byproducts. Therefore, the ADH enzyme first breaks down the alcohol (ethanol) and converts it in the toxin acetaldehyde, whereas the ALDH enzyme’s job is to convert this toxin into the less harmful compound known as acetate. This way, other chemicals in the body can easily turn the acetate into water and CO2, after which it leaves the system.
When it comes to Asian flush sufferers, due to a genetic anomaly which theoretically dates back as far as 10,000 years ago, in some cases both while in some one of these enzymes doesn’t work properly. The first one, the ADH enzyme, breaks down the alcohol more rapidly than normally, which causes rapid accumulation of acetaldehyde in the blood and the liver. On the other hand, the second ALDH enzyme, instead of quickly converting this toxin into a less harmful compound, it does the complete opposite. This leads to acetaldehyde being stuck in the liver which causes dilated blood vessels which increases the blood pressure. As a result, the face and skin start to glow red, and along this other symptoms appear as well, like:
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased heart rate
- General discomfort
The accumulation of acetaldehyde can lead to many health problems, like hypertension, liver diseases, even esophageal cancer, which makes this reaction more serious that what it appears to be.
It’s true that Asian flush can happen to anyone, no matter where they come from, but generally speaking, this is a condition that mostly affects East Asians. According to this study, more than 36% of East Asians, primarily Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese people, suffer from this peculiar condition. So why Asians?
Well, according to this study, it’s theorized that alcohol flush reaction developed in Southern China, as far as 10,000 years ago. This was during the rice cultivation era, when people discovered how to ferment it and produce alcoholic beverages from this newly-discovered fermentation process. Since alcohol was a fairly new thing that people were not used to, consequently a new compound for the body, this physical substance in which we are in developed its own defense mechanism to protect ourselves from harm. Therefore, a gene anomaly developed where the functionality of the above-mentioned enzymes was impaired, so that people couldn’t ingest large amounts of alcohol without showing the previously-said symptoms.
So, one way to look at it is that this gene developed in a way to discourage people from drinking too much, preventing the rise of alcoholism during that time. All in all, this reaction used to be very beneficial since people at that time were not quite aware of the negative consequences of alcohol, like we are now, so it prevented them from drinking too much.
Is There a Cure for Asian Flush?
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for this reaction, only means to prevent its symptoms.
One prevention would be the use of antihistamines, but this is only a temporary solution. The reason why it’s not really recommended to use antihistamines, especially regularly, is because of the fact that they only mask the symptoms instead of taking care of the enzymes’ deficiency. So, your face will be less red and flushing, that’s true, but the dangerous toxin acetaldehyde will still stay in your system and accumulate with each sip you take. Also, taking Zantac or Pepcid AC before drinking will quickly increase your blood alcohol level, meaning that you’ll get drunk faster than usual.