Asian flush, explained
For most people, when they drink alcohol, it can make them feel more confident and comfortable. But for me, drinking makes me feel less confident and UNcomfortable. That’s because, thanks to my DNA, alcohol makes my skin turn red.
It’s called Asian flush, and it affects about 36% percent of Northeast Asians, with higher rates among Asian Americans. I guess We should probably show you what it looks like. [For Science. For Science.] [Are we slamming?] People tend to assume that a red face means that we’re drunk but that’s a myth. These are completely separate processes. Facial flushing, whether from embarrassment, exercise, or alcohol, happens when blood vessels under the surface of the skin dilate. In the case of Asian flush, this is part of an immune response. The body is detecting a threat.
The threat isn’t the alcohol itself, but a substance that our livers produce while breaking down alcohol. [For me at least, the warmth starts in my chest and then moves its way up.] [My cheeks are warm, my ears are warm.] [It’s weird, it’s almost like my eyes are almost puffy] When people drink ethanol - that’s the chemical name for booze - the liver gets rid of it using two main enzymes. The first reacts with the ethanol molecule to produce a substance called acetaldehyde. And the second quickly turns acetaldehyde into acetate, which is similar to vinegar, and easy for the body to eliminate. It’s that second enzyme that really screws things up for people with Asian flush. If you look inside our DNA, you’ll find that the gene providing the instructions for that enzyme was tweaked at some point in our history. And that gene mutation produces an inactive enzyme.
So when we drink our bodies accumulate acetaldehyde at a level about 6 times higher than normal If acetaldehyde sounds familiar, that may be because it’s similar to formaldehyde. It’s toxic. That's why it triggers the immune response. And the red face is really the least of it. After having that one beer, I didn’t feel tipsy at all, but my heart rate doubled. My eyes were bloodshot, and within a half hour, I had a headache. Even worse, acetaldehyde can cause cancer.
It’s a problem because people actually can develop a tolerance to Asian flush, and that allows them to drink pretty heavily. Studies have shown that heavy drinking raises the risk of esophageal cancer for everyone, but especially for people with Asian flush. So it’s potentially problematic that alcohol consumption in Asia has been increasing, especially in China. So if you have Asian flush, be careful - your body is freaking out for a reason. And if you don’t flush, just don’t expect us to keep up with you.
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