Our Complete Guide to Asian Glow
Thanks to our student Hannah Li for this wonderful insight into what is Asian Glow.
“It was a Friday or Saturday evening; I was at home with some friends over. I can’t remember why I was rushing, but for some reason, I downed three quarters of a very low-proof hard cider, not thinking about the consequences.”
A few minutes later, I was red down to my shoulders, unreasonably warm, and could feel my head pounding to the beat of my heart.
Though it was certainly not the first time, I was experiencing the Asian glow
Maybe you’ve heard of, or seen the Asian glow.
Maybe you’ve suffered through it yourself, or maybe you’ve never heard of it at all!
But what exactly is it?
If you plan on coming to China you’re sure to encounter it, if you haven’t already!
Asian glow, also sometimes referred to as Asian flush, is a slang term for Alcohol Flush Reaction (AFR), which affects about 36% of East Asians, including Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans (1).
While it’s not restricted to Asians only, it’s not as common among other ethnicity groups, with the exception of Ashkenazi Jews (2).
The second half of the term refers to the signature symptom of AFR, a red, flushed face.
The “flush” or “glow” can even spread to the neck, shoulders, or entire body, and it can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. Nausea, headaches, and rapid heart rate (basically hangover-type symptoms) often accompany AFR (1).
AFR could really just be considered one symptom of a broader condition, alcohol intolerance.
Other symptoms of alcohol intolerance include swelling around the eyes, restricted breathing, a stuffy nose, and/or dizziness (3), which is an all-around bummer for a night out with friends.
As a Chinese American, I’ve experienced Asian glow ever since I had my first drink.
For me, this means I can’t drink alcohol in large amounts, or very quickly or frequently.
Asians may experience AFR at different levels–some only have a mild flush. But I’ve always had to deal with an increased heart rate, congested nose, and possible headache, in addition to the embarrassment of a cherry-red complexion.
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But what exactly causes Alcohol Flush Reaction?
Let’s talk about it!
When you drink alcohol, your liver uses an enzyme to convert the alcohol into a toxic substance called acetaldehyde.
From there, another enzyme, called ALDH2, breaks down the acetaldehyde into acetic acid, which is harmless (4).
People with AFR have a genetic deficiency of the ALDH2 enzyme, causing the toxic acetaldehyde to build up in their system, up to 10 times more than the normal concentration, and cause unpleasant side effects (4).
If you’re not following some of the more scientific terms–here’s what it all means:
Basically, people with AFR aren’t able to break down alcohol as efficiently as people without AFR!
One common misconception could be that a person with AFR may seem more intoxicated than they actually are.
However, this enzyme deficiency doesn’t affect the levels of alcohol in the blood, it just makes the drinker uncomfortable (4).
If you have AFR, is there anything you can do about it?
Since AFR is the result of an enzyme deficiency, there’s really no way to “cure” this issue.
Some medications, such as Zantac or Pepcid AC, can help diminish the symptoms of AFR, such as preventing the red flush.
But these medications don’t actually deal with the real issue of the toxic acetaldehyde build-up, so they may not be the best option (1).
In fact, some people think that these medications could be really bad for you, since the symptoms they prevent are the very symptoms that signal your body it’s time to stop drinking! (5)
Obviously, the best way to prevent AFR is to not drink at all, but of course that can be difficult!
If you want to mitigate the symptoms of AFR, try eating a meal before drinking, drinking slowly, and drinking water between alcoholic drinks! (1)
Is AFR nothing more than just a red face? Or is it harmful?
Here’s the good news: AFR is associated with lower rates of alcoholism, so at least its unpleasant effects have some benefits!
But, it’s also associated with an increased risk of oesophageal cancer (1), so if you or someone you know has AFR, drink carefully!
In addition to physical effects, AFR can also impact a person’s social life, since drinking and socializing or networking often go hand in hand.
In my personal experience, the glow can definitely be annoying or embarrassing, and it absolutely limits my drinking. That being said, It’s never stopped me from having a good time or making friends!
So, does AFR, or alcohol intolerance in general, affect drinking culture in China?
Although you might think that such a prevalent condition might reduce drinking rates among Chinese people, drinking culture is still huge in China.
While many Chinese people are affected by Asian flush, many more are not!
Bars and liquor stores are around just about every corner. People drink while eating out, making business deals at restaurants, and singing karaoke (or KTV, as it’s more commonly called).
Or, they might pick up alcohol from a convenience store and take it home to drink (6).
According to 2016 data, the average Chinese person over the age of 15 consumes 7.2 liters of pure alcohol annually, 0.8 liters more than the global average of 6.4 liters per person. This breaks down to approximately one liter of wine consumed every week (based on a 12% alcohol content) (7).
Chinese people drink all kinds of alcohol. Tsingtao and Harbin are two very popular brands of Chinese beer. Another classic Chinese drink is baijiu, which has a very high alcohol content. However, red wine and other types of foreign alcohol are also becoming more and more popular in China (6).
So I think it’s safe to say that Chinese people like to drink! Asian glow doesn’t seem to negatively affect drinking culture in China much at all.
Do you have Asian glow? Have you ever seen someone experience Asian glow? Tell us more about your experience in the comment section below!
If you’re interested in finding out more about Asian glow and drinking in China, check out these links!
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