News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 2 to 3 p.m.

Things to know if you get the 'Asian glow' this New Year's Eve

For many Asians, drinking on New Year's Eve may require some planning to avoid becoming too flushed after a few cocktails.
For many Asians, drinking on New Year's Eve may require some planning to avoid becoming too flushed after a few cocktails.

Listen to story

Download this story 4MB

This New Year’s Eve, you may want to put on your best, leave Netflix behind and ring-in 2017 with a drink or two.

But for many Asians, that last one may require some planning so you don’t become too flushed after a few cocktails.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, “Asian glow” or “Asian flush,” you’d probably know it if you saw it.

I recently went to a bar with my friend, Michelle Tran. We're both Vietnamese-American and after just half a beer, we both get the “glow.” Not a subtle pinkness of the cheeks that some people get after a few drinks. Both of our entire bodies are bright red. I even get itchy and swollen.

The bar is dark, the music is loud and we sit in a corner, where it’s hard to tell if we’re “glowing.” Tran recalls the first time she felt it.

“I was very young, an 18-year-old in college doing the whole dorm life, and we had a cheap bottle of Kirkland vodka. After that second shot, my friend said, ‘Michelle, you’re really red. You look like a raspberry.’”

And it happens to about 25 to 35 percent of people of East Asian descent. Hence the term, “Asian glow.” Typically, all it takes is one drink. 

So why does this happen? Daryl Davies is the director of the Alcohol and Brain Research Laboratory at the University of Southern California. He says “Asian glow” may have occurred centuries ago in China and is the result of a genetic mutation affecting a stomach enzyme.

DARYL DAVIES: So an individual drinks alcohol. That’s converted to acetaldehyde…a very toxic compound. The ‘Asian flush’ is due to a buildup of acetaldehyde because we don’t have the key enzyme, the tool that most people have to rapidly metabolize acetaldehyde, [which clears] it from the body.

This mutation doesn’t just impact how you look. Davies says it can lead to other side effects like nausea and heart palpitations.

And Asians aren’t the only ones who get the “glow,” some Ashkenazi Jews are known to have it too. It can happen to anyone who lacks the kind of enzyme activity that breaks down alcohol.

People go to all kinds of lengths to avoid the glow. Michelle Tran has her own recipe.

“I take Claritin D-12 and then a Zantac [about] 30 minutes before I go out. So that’s been my concoction for the past few years.”

If you look online, there are forums and videos dedicated to “Asian glow” and cocktails to fight that redness.

But is it safe to take these “remedies”?

For people with the “glow,” Daryl Davies from USC says, not really. Remember acetaldehyde, that toxic chemical in alcohol…

“Acetaldehyde will continue to be at high levels in your body and it will take a long, long time for it to be metabolized. You have about a ten-fold increase in esophageal cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancers, etc.,” Davies explains.

While some people who have this reaction to alcohol may not know the risks of drinking, redness is a clear sign that a beer or cocktail may not be the best thing for you.

BUT, it’s the holidays, and explaining that you have an enzyme deficiency isn’t the most exciting small talk. However, turning red could be a topic of conversation. 

Oliver Wang is a regular on Take Two’s “Tuesday Reviewsday,” and an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach specializing in race, ethnicity and pop culture. For him, hearing lighthearted comments about “Asian glow” isn’t a big deal, but it can set you apart.

OLIVER WANG: It would be the cause for some jovial joking if you will. But it never felt mean spirited per se. You would feel self-conscious about it simply because there’d be a lot of people who didn’t have it. And if you were the only Asian person in the mix, then you would stand out because your face looked like you were heavily sunburned.

Davies says that if you have the “glow” and do choose to drink, as with all things, moderation is key. 

“The more you hydrate the better…[that’s] spacing out the alcohol, so you’re still socially there, but you’re spreading out the time between drinks.”

In other words, if it’s wine o’clock, that’s O.K. once in awhile, even if it makes you blush.