The Asian flush is a phenomenon that occurs when people have an allergic reaction to alcohol. The reaction produces several symptoms—one of which makes the skin turn red. Despite what you might think, it doesn’t mean that your compadre is more drunk than you, or can’t handle their liquor—it’s simply the result of a missing enzyme. And nor is it confined to Asians, despite the name.
ABC’s comedy television series “Fresh off the Boat”—loosely based on the childhood of famous chef, author, and TV host Eddie Huang—even dedicated an entire episode to explaining the Asian flush.
In the episode Eddie’s father Louis, even elaborated on the contents of his “Flush Pack”—a tote bag carried for preventative measures including items like Pepcid AC, an inhaler, eye drops, and Tums antacid, which he secretly brings along when drinking with his caucasian friends.
Here in Vietnam the allergic reaction is ubiquitous. In order to better understand the science behind it, we had a chat with medical experts Jio Health to try and grasp the beet-red effect of boozing—a condition that affects roughly 36% of East Asians.
Breaking down the science of the Asian flush
Medical professionals refer to the alcohol-induced allergy as “alcohol flush reaction.” Any form of flushing—not only from alcohol—occurs when blood vessels under the skin dilate. This is part of an immune response. Side effects include flushed skin, headache, increased heart rate, and nausea. The Asian flush is a genetic condition that has no cure.
Enzymes aldehyde and dehydrogenase break down alcohol molecules and eliminate them from the body. However, a large majority of people—many of whom are of Asian descent—do not produce dehydrogenase because of a gene mutation that has evolved over time. The result is that those with the mutation accumulate six times more acetaldehyde, which is highly toxic—causing a flushed face.
Although the phenomenon has been played for comic purposes, the facial flush is, in fact, a health issue that extends beyond the cosmetic. According to a new study conducted by Cambridge Universitythe allergy damages chromosomes and mutates stem cells.
Be aware of the health risks associated with the allergy
Business Insider also reported on the health risks of the Asian flush claiming that acetaldehyde buildup causes a higher risk of mouth and throat cancers. Data is accumulating about Vietnam’s surge in alcohol consumption. In light of evidence about the dangers of the Asian flush, a more prudent approach to drinking is appropriate.
In an additional study—conducted by the scientific journal Nature—Oxford University’s senior clinical researcher, Anya Topiwala, added her voice to the matter affirming that those with the “Asian glow” are at a higher risk for cancer. “The study provides direct support for the suspicion that alcohol is worse for those with the Asian flush,” she explained.
Four ways to manage the Asian flush
#1. There are a few ways that bearers of the allergic reaction can reduce the effects of flushing. Taking medication such as Pepcid AC 20 minutes prior to drinking is one of the most commonly used preventative methods to avoid facial flushing.
#2. If you do drink, Jio Health suggests consuming at least two glasses of water before you go out as it will significantly dilute the alcohol entering your system. To take that one step further, the medical professionals even suggest consuming one glass of water in between each alcoholic drink to lessen your chances of allergic reactions.
#3. The kind of beverage that you consume also matters. Beverages like white wine and champagne lessen your chances of getting the “Asian Glow”.
#4. There are also products on the market designed to help people deal with the side effects of Asian flush. Most notable is Before Elixir—a natural tonic used to prevent redness and heavy hangovers. It contains vitamins, plant extracts, and amino acids which reduce the dangerous acetaldehyde buildup promoting more healthy liver function.
Sunset is another Asian flush management product on the market. It works by assisting acetaldehyde break down alcohol before it causes redness. It’s also a histamine blocker that helps the body bypass residual toxins not eliminated by the tablets.
Be aware of the risk of taking preventative medications
Although a large amount of literature advises the use of medications like Pepcid AC for preventing the Asian flush, research suggests that long term use of such medications in combination with alcohol consumption can have serious health consequences.
Jio Health pointed us to an article by Daryl Davies, director of the Alcohol and Brain Research Laboratory at USC, which provides scientific support for such claims. “Using histamine blockers to reduce the Asian flush can escalate alcohol intake and increase the risk of stomach cancers, esophageal cancer, and a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma,” said Davies.