Asian Flush: Asians and Alcohol
BN Magazine, News Feature, Maria Huynh Posted: Jul 01, 2006
You Are Not Alone: Asians and Alcohol
It’s Saturday night. You are meeting friends for dinner at a chic spot in town. You share appetizers, enjoy a delectable exotic entrée, and order a glass of wine to complement your meal. The conversation and laughter lingers and is soon followed by another round of drinks for everyone. After dinner, your group continues the night at the cool dance club across town. After gaining passage from the bouncer at the door, everyone heads to the bar to order Jack Daniels on the rocks, Cosmopolitans, Captain Morgan and Coke, and of course, somebody always wants a mixed drink. After several sips, everyone is buzzed and hits the dance floor.
After several songs, everyone takes a break from dancing. Your best friend brings two pitchers of beer for the group. Before the pitcher is three–quarters empty, someone yells, “let’s do shots!” Soon, small shot glasses filled the tequila, bowls of lime, and salt shakers crowd the table. After you down your shot to the group’s cheer, you patiently watch as everyone takes their turn. Your ears perched to the familiar beat of your favorite song and you mojo back to the dance floor...
Does any part of this story sound familiar to you? If you are lucky, you’ve been able to enjoy similar social events, happy hours, and wine tastings to the fullest extent. You were able to participate in and enjoy every part of a night out on the town—the eating, drinking, and dancing—with the camaraderie of friends. But, if you are like an estimated 50 percent of the Asians out there, somewhere in between the dinner and the dance floor, you were overcome with some weird, inexplicable sensations soon after the consumption of alcoholic drinks.
Let’s see if any of these persistent symptoms happen to you after you have had relatively small amounts to drink:
–Rosy or red face (color may affect the rest of the body too)
–Increased or rapid pulse
–Headaches (maybe a symptom of dehydration too)
–Difficulty maintaining balance
–Nausea (always a bad sign)
Now, if you are indeed cursed with the “Asian Flush,” as it is popularly called, chances are that you already know that you are cursed.
You can’t drink and you know it —you probably found out even before you were legally able to drink. But take this mini–quiz to discover the depth of your cursed status:
–Bahama Mama, Tanqueray, vermouth, and Zinfandel are foreign objects that the Swiss invented.
–You have never won at Beer Pong, Keg Stands, Flip Cup or Three Man.
–You don’t know how to use a beer bong.
–At happy hours, while everyone has their booze and liquor, you drink cranberry juice. Maybe if you want to push it, you have a fuzzy navel. If you hear a mental “ding!” after reading any of the above statements, you too are cursed.
As drinking is a common activity in many social outings and after–work happy hour rituals, the cursed ones have been socially marginalized. You’ve been called names, such as “lightweight,” “party pooper,” and “cheap date.” You cannot participate in ubiquitous drinking games and you watch the chugging uninhibited contestants with equal parts of sheer amazement and deep envy. Those who are not cursed—the drinkers—do not understand or buy your excuse.
The Biology Behind the Red Face
Well, now you can have a better understanding of the biological mechanisms behind the Asian Flush and also have some ammunition to fight off drink pushers. The Asian Flush is a casual term that describes the body’s inability to break down alcohol. According to metabolism researcher John Tyburski, Ph.D, MPH, to properly process alcohol, the body undergoes a two–step process that involves two enzymes: alcohol dehydrogenase, responsible for converting alcohol to acetaldehyde, and aldehyde dehydrogenase.
According to Dr. Tyburski, who earned his Ph.D in physiology and cell biology, “aldehyde dehydrogenase, when functional, is responsible for converting acetaldehyde into acetic acid.” However, cursed individuals can only perform the first step because their aldehyde dehydrogenase does not work optimally. The result is an accumulation of acetaldehyde, which is highly toxic.
Because it cannot be broken down, it builds up in the body and causes the flushing and eventually more serious effects, such as headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Another important factor that Dr. Tyburski points out: When drinking, beware of acetaminophen, the active ingredient in some pain relievers. “The result is the conversion of these drugs into harmful intermediates that can injure the liver,” he states. Thus, it is generally considered risky to take Tylenol after heavy drinking. This is true for all individuals, cursed or not.
The Asian Flush is a result of a genetic mutation (you are not only cursed, but you are a cursed mutant, too), which you have gotten from your mother, father or both. However, it does not mean that all your brothers and sisters would necessarily have it. Sometimes, only one member of the family has problems processing alcohol (aren’t you special?). Also, the symptoms vary in time, quantity, and severity from one person to another because every body processes alcohol differently. You may have a beet red face and heart palpitations after a full glass of beer, but your best friend may have a rosy face and headaches after only three sips. There is really nothing you can do to prevent these symptoms. Alcohol tolerance is genetic. There is no clinically proven, safe, or effective way to change how your body processes alcohol.
Scientists do not know why the Asian Flush phenomenon primarily affects Asians; however, they suggest that it contributes to the low incidence of alcoholism in Asian communities. So you may be cursed but you will never be an alcoholic, will probably not suffer from cirrhosis or alcoholic hepatitis, or go broke from buying alcohol. Lastly, although you can’t drink, it doesn’t mean you have to completely miss out on drinking lingo.
So here’s your cheat sheet:
–Bahama Mama is a mixed drink with pineapple and other fruit juices, (coconut) rum, and crushed ice.
–Tanqueray is a high–end, smooth gin preferred by many drinkers in their gin and tonics.
–Vermouth is the liquor in martinis. Cosmopolitans are a type of martinis usually distinguished by its pink color.
–Captain Morgan is a popular rum that is often mixed with Coke.
–Beer bong is a funnel and tube where beer is poured into the drinker’s throat.
–Beer Pong, Keg Stands, Flip Cup and Three Man are drinking games where the participants have to drink each time he or she violates a rule.
Always remember to listen to what your body is telling you. If you feel physically uncomfortable, stop drinking—it is for your own benefit, especially if you are cursed.
BN Special thanks to Dr. John Tyburski, Ph.D, MPH, for his technical expertise and contributions to this article.
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