It is rare to meet someone who doesn’t know at least one person, if not themselves, that gets red or flushed when they drink alcohol. This phenomenon has been nicknamed the “Asian Glow” or “Asian Flush,” but the more formal term for it is Alcohol Flush Reaction or Alcohol Flush Syndrome.
What is Asian Glow?
Asian Glow is a condition in which a person develops a red flush or blotch on the face, shoulders, neck, or the entire body after consuming alcoholic beverages. In addition, people suffering from Asian Glow also experience a range of other symptoms when consuming alcohol. These symptoms can include one or more of the following:
- feeling hot in the body
- a racing heart beat
- a stuffy nose
- bloodshot or itchy eyes
- hives (in extreme cases)
In order to understand why this reaction occurs, we have to dive into how the body metabolizes or breaks down alcohol. The main method that the body metabolizes alcohol is dependent on two enzymes:
- Alcohol dehydrogenase which converts alcohol into acetaldehyde first and
- Acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) which then breaks down acetaldehyde into harmless compounds.
Asian Glow is caused by the buildup of acetaldehyde, which is a toxin produced by the partial oxidation of ethanol by the liver enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ALDH2). This build up happens when the body has a deficiency of the ALDH2 enzyme and results in an accumulation of acetaldehyde up to 10 times the normal concentration.
Can I Get the Asian Glow if I’m Not Asian?
Yes, anyone can get the Asian Glow (Alcohol Flush Reaction) due to the ALDH2 deficiency. However, the term, “Asian Glow” comes from the fact that about 50% of people of East Asian descent, including Chinese, Japanese, North Korean, South Korean, Mongolian, and Taiwanese, have the ALDH2 deficiency. Again, while it’s most prominent across people of East Asian descent, anyone can have this deficiency. In fact, Ashkenazi Jews are also more likely to have this deficiency.
Is Asian Glow an Allergy?
There is a lot of confusion around whether or not Asian Glow is an allergy. The answer is that it is actually not caused by an alcohol allergy, it is caused by an alcohol intolerance, which is not the same condition.
The difference between an alcohol intolerance and an alcohol allergy is the way your body reacts to consuming alcohol. An intolerance is a genetic, metabolic disorder of the digestive system. Your body doesn’t process alcohol the way it should and has a chemical reaction to it.
An alcohol allergy is an immune system response. If you have an allergy, your immune system will overreact to an ingredient in alcohol. You may be allergic to one of them such as a grain, a preservative like sulfite, a chemical, etc.
While the symptoms differ between an intolerance and an allergy, there are some similarities between them. For example, both have the potential to cause nausea. However, the most obvious symptom when trying to determine whether it’s an allergy or an intolerance is that in most cases, it’s an alcohol intolerance if flushing of the skin occurs on the face, neck, and chest.
The symptoms to look out for when dealing with an allergy would include rashes, swelling, itchiness, and severe stomach cramps. In addition, the symptoms are often much more painful and uncomfortable than alcohol intolerance symptoms. In rare cases, if an allergy is left untreated, it can be life-threatening.
The only way to confirm whether you have an allergy to alcohol is to talk to your doctor. If your doctor confirms you have an intolerance and not an allergy, follow these tips to help prevent Asian Glow.