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Column: What is Asian flush?

Drinking is a social pleasure and should be done responsibly
Hydra wine
What causes Asian flush what is it signalling to people?

Asian flush or Asian glow is a reaction to alcohol that many Asians experience.  Some people turn beet red even after a few sips of alcohol.

According to a study, this tendency is commonly called Asian flush because it is a condition that affects between 30 to 50 per cent of people of Chinese, Japanese and Korean descent. While this condition can affect other people groups, it is much less prevalent for non-Asians to turn red after drinking only a small amount of alcohol.  Having said that, most people will develop a flush on their face at some point if they consume enough alcohol.

Asian flush occurs because about 80 per cent of East Asians convert alcohol to acetaldehyde faster than most people and once converted into acetaldehyde, up to 30 to 50 per cent of East Asians can’t break down acetaldehyde normally, says studies. When you drink alcohol, your body converts the alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is a toxin. Most people have enzymes that rapidly break down acetaldehyde into acetate, which is a relatively harmless substance.

But many Asians either lack these enzymes or have enzymes that work slower. This causes a build-up of acetaldehyde, which in turn releases histamines, causing redness in the face and body as well as other symptoms such as headaches, red eyes, itchiness, rapid heartbeat and a sensation of feeling warm. The continual build-up of acetaldehyde in the body leads to the increased risk of several types of cancer such as esophageal and stomach cancer.

So does that mean that Asians should not drink alcohol? Although Asian flush is unpleasant and unsightly, it does go away. Some Asians have a variant of an enzyme that actually is protective against developing alcoholism. So I try to think of Asian flush as your body giving you a warning sign to slow down when you are drinking alcohol.

So how do you prevent Asian flush? One of the worst things you can do is take antihistamines and block your body’s normal warning signs.

For most people, simply drinking in moderation, drinking slower, having more water or drinking with food will alleviate some of the symptoms.   What is drinking in moderation?  I have heard many different definitions of what people consider to be moderate drinking, but HealthLink BC defines low-risk drinking levels as no more than three standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week for males, and no more than two standard drinks a day and no more than 10 standard drinks a week for females. 

Men and women metabolize alcohol differently and in general, women have less body mass, less body water and a higher liver-to-lean-body-mass ratio. As such, women tend to reach peak blood alcohol levels faster and break down alcohol to acetaldehyde at a faster rate than most men, which is why their weekly alcohol limit is lower.  A standard drink is considered a cocktail containing 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer. 

For wine drinkers, 15 standard drinks a week would be equivalent to around three bottles of wine a week.

This column may seem sobering but the bottom line is that wine drinking is one of the greatest social pleasures of life, so for those of us who choose to drink alcohol, we want to ensure we drink responsibly so we can live a healthy life and continue to enjoy wines for many, many years.

Until next time, happy drinking!

Tony Kwan is the Richmond News' new columnist. Lawyer by day, food and wine lover by night, Kwan is an epicurean who writes about wine, food and enjoying all that life has to offer.