It starts with anything from faintly pink cheeks to severe redness spreading throughout the entire face. The more time passes, the worse it can get.

For some people, it stops at the face—if they’re lucky. For others, it might spread all the way across the body, even to their forearms and torso. Fortunately, it’s not something contagious, only totally and utterly not cute. It’s not a disease, but it’s nearly as unwelcome.

Unflattering to the hundredth power, the creeping redness is a loud, embarrassing, uncontrollable announcement to the entire world: This Asian is definitely drinking.

Asian Glow is… what, exactly?

It’s not a disease, but it’s something that leads to many flushed, red-faced Asians suffering their friends’ laughter and teasing, thus affecting their mental health, confidence and overall sense of sexiness. But in all seriousness, Asian Glow is quite common and also not the most aesthetically pleasing result of indulging in alcohol.

Asian glow

Photo by Rachel Lee

Wikipedia calls Asian Glow, AKA alcohol flush reaction, “a condition in which an individual develops flushes or blotches…on the face, neck, shoulders, and, in some cases, the entire body after consuming alcoholic beverages.”

This condition can affect anyone, but Mother Nature has kindly made it so that alcohol flush reaction happens the most frequently among the Asian population.

I want the science.

According to Popular Science, 1 out of 3 people of East Asian descent can thank genetics for the flush they get after drinking. Asian Glow happens because the body produces “an inefficient version of the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH),” one of the two enzymes responsible for breaking down ethanol from alcoholic beverages. This leads to the accumulation of a little something called acetaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde buildup is what causes Asian Glow, along with symptoms that can range from mildly uncomfortable to downright upsetting, such as:

  • nausea
  • a racing heartbeat
  • sweating
  • diarrhea

Perhaps one of the ironic things is that sometimes doctors deliberately induce Asian Glow’s effects in alcoholics to give them awful side effects when they drink. Now there’s some food for thought.

Why isn’t there some magical pill for this?

Asian Glow is not similar to, say, lactose intolerance, which can be dealt with a pill that provides more dairy-digesting enzymes in the stomach.

Asian glow

Photo by Rachel Lee

Popular Science states that ALDH works in the liver cells’ mitochondria, tiny structures found within every single cell of your body. If you were to swallow more ALDH to help break down ethanol, the enzymes would get digested before being effective. Enzymes are also generally too large to enter the cells and mitochondria.

Whoa, so is Asian Glow a bad thing?

As National Institutes of Health shares, apparently Asian Glow signals an increased risk of esophageal cancer due to enzyme deficiency. At least you can say that Asian Glow is a useful reason to not be an alcoholic…right?

Seriously though, Asian Glow isn’t so terrible that it should restrict people from drinking completely. Thousands of Asians drink in various settings, confidently deal with the Glow and are perfectly fine. After all, what’s life without a few beers or responsibly handled nights of drunkenness?

Bottoms up.