To boldly glow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2008, 12:00am

According to the lunar calendar, the birthday of Kwan Tai will be celebrated on Saturday. Revered for his integrity and loyalty, and variously known as the God of War or the God of Justice, Kwan Tai is immediately recognisable because of his fierce features, lengthy beard and fiery-red face.

In his case, the red face signifies ruddy good health. For half of Asia, a red face means mum and dad short-changed you in the aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) gene pool. ALDH is an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in our systems. Well, not alcohol exactly. First, the alcohol is metabolised into acetaldehyde - otherwise known as the hangover compound. Acetaldehyde is toxic, but when ALDH does battle, it metamorphoses into harmless vinegar.

Via an ancient genetic mutation, about 50 per cent of those with Asian ancestry are born with only a small reserve of ALDH, which means alcohol can trigger an embarrassing rosy-cheeked reaction. Although commonly known as Asian flush, a considerable portion of Jews are also prone to it.

Contrary to popular opinion, the red cheeks are not a sign of drunkenness - initially. The toxic build-up of acetaldehyde causes capillaries to dilate (vasodilation), which results in flushing on the face, neck and shoulders and potentially every part of the body except the feet. Rosy cheeks can be followed by an increased heart rate, low blood pressure, a headache, hyperventilation and nausea.

There are a number of alleged cures for the reaction, such as sucking on ice chips or taking aspirin or antacid tablets. However, never take aspirin with alcohol because it interferes with its preliminary breakdown. Especially never take acetaminophens (such as Tylenol or Panadol) while drinking as this can cause serious liver damage. The latest fad is to take heart-burn medicines, such as Zantac or Pepcid AC, to combat the flush. Apparently the tablets have to be taken about 30 minutes before consuming alcohol to be effective. There is little research on this topic because there's no medical imperative to make it easier for people to overindulge in alcohol. It is thought that Zantac and similar medications act as antihistamines, calming the skin's reaction.

There's a bright side to the glow: alcoholism levels are exceedingly low among Asians. The flush is such a deterrent to overindulging that drugs such as Antabuse, which mimic the effect, are given to recovering alcoholics.

While some Facebook groups are promoting Asian-flush pride, it is best to listen to your body as it is trying to prevent you from harming yourself. If you want to celebrate the God of Justice's birthday by lifting a few glasses, do so, but stop as soon as you are as red as Kwan Tai.