The Asian Glow: What I Didn’t Know Could Have Killed Me

Have you ever heard of the Asian Glow? Despite being 1/4 Japanese, until two months ago, I hadn't either.

This morning I went looking for something: a specific flashlight I like. Normally it sits on top of this Indian cabinet we have (it was made in India, we bought it in upstate New York). I couldn't find it so I looked inside the cabinet. This cabinet also serves as our liquor cabinet. We don't have much alcohol in the house, neither of us are very big drinkers. We keep whatever we have down there for parties or when friends come to visit. It's more for them than for us. We might have a shot now and then but in all honesty we're far more into cannabis than alcohol.

Seeing the bottles of Tito's vodka, rum from Puerto Rico, Dominica (a gift from a relative), Haiti and Barbados and Sambuca reminded me of something. I haven't had anything but wine in nearly two months, which wasn't by choice—despite the fact that I don't drink much.

I've never had an easy time of drinking anything other than wine. I get drunk very quickly. It starts with a hollowness in my legs, then tachycardia. My face would get red or "flushed" and after just one shot of something I am drunk. Skip tipsy, I'm drunk. I never got why.

People would tell me things like, "oh you're a cheap date" or "you're lucky it doesn't take you a lot. People would kill to get drunk as fast as you." Well in truth, it wasn't all that much fun.

In April I had what I assumed was a massive anxiety attack. Normally my anxiety attacks give me tachycardia, sweaty palms, light headedness, nasty headache and a sense of impending doom. I've been woken up by too many anxiety attacks in my life to not know what's happening. But this attack was different.

My heart wasn't beating quickly. I wasn't sweating. Instead I had a huge pounding in my chest that hurt. And it didn't go away. I didn't know what caused it and while I initially feared it was a heart attack, I also know when men and women have heart attacks, the symptoms are different. I ruled that out. I mentioned it to my doctor but she said it was an anxiety attack.

Given this infographic, she wasn't being dismissive.

Asian Glow



















First I smoked weed, which usually calms a panic attack but nothing happened. I took two Benedryl and that worked.

Two weeks later it happened again, this time within seconds of having a shot of Tito's vodka. Paul and I went on a google frenzy and decided I was allergic to fermented corn, so a week later I tried another kind of alcohol: Sambuca. Sambuca isn't made with corn, it's derived from anise.

Same thing, only stronger.

Mysterious Diagnosis: Asian Glow

I called my doctor the next morning but was on vacation. Shit. My friend Joan suggested I see her doctor. She had an opening and I went in. I told her my symptoms and she asked if I'd ever heard of the Asian Glow.

She said it sounded like something she'd just read in a journal article about Asians having an inability to metabolize fermented alcohol. I told her that I am 1/4 Japanese. She ran a blood test, which came back positive, along with having more in-depth blood work on my thyroid. She believed the increase in symptoms after drinking may lie within my thyroid's compromised function over the last few months since my nodules had grown out of control.

Although some of the symptoms of Asian Glow include:

  • Swelling of the cheeks
  • Redness of face and upper body (i.e. the Asian flush)
  • Red eyes
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea
  • Rapid heart rate

the symptom most talked about is the redness in the face.

At 52 years old I learned I lack the enzyme to metabolize fermented alcohol—a trait found in people of Asian descent. Dubbed the Asian Glow, there's nothing glowing about the alcohol flush reaction (AFR).

This is what AFR is according to Yale University:

"Typically, alcohol is metabolized in the liver, where it is oxidized first to acetaldehyde and then to acetate. Most people who experience AFR, however, flush after drinking because they lack the mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) enzyme that converts acetaldehyde, resulting in an accumulation of acetaldehyde up to 10 times the normal concentration. The exact genetic nature of the deficient enzyme appears to be the presence of an allele (ALDH2*2) that inactivates ALDH2 enzymes. The allele is, in fact, dominant, although heterozygous individuals show much milder reactions to alcohol than homozygous individuals."

I have never been a heavy drinker, unlike every member of my immediate family. I used to enjoy a shot here or there. I drink a glass of wine with dinner every day and have been all of my adult life. Just one, but every so often two.

There is no cure for Asian Glow. When I first mentioned it to some people a few said, "oh just take an antacid before drinking." Folks, this isn't a cure and there are many short- and long-term side effects of taking antacids.

So why did it take so many years to discover it? One because I don't drink liquor all that often. And I have my previously whacked out thyroid to thank for the discovery.

The thyroid regulates our entire endocrine system, including our metabolism. In the months leading up to my surgery 10 days ago, my thyroid wasn't functioning too well. I was exhausted all the time. I couldn't regulate my body temperature and I felt flu-like at least once or twice a month.

My Thyroid Problems May Have Saved My Life

Much as I hated needing to remove half my thyroid, I'm grateful to it. I doubt I would have put 2 and 2 together and eventually it could have done irreparable damage to my heart, DNA and possibly lead to mouth, larynx, breast, esophageal and/or colon cancer.

Although any heavy drinker is susceptible to those cancers, those with the Asian Glow are more susceptible because of the rapidity of damage to the DNA.

After learning about Asian Glow, the first thing that came to mind was a line spoken by Christina Yang, played by Sandra Oh, on Grey's Anatomy. I may as well have learned I was abducted by aliens, the concept of anything about me being attributed to being Asian is wild. Asian Glow









Why have I written about this? I'm mixed race. My mother was Black and Japanese and my father was all sorts of European White. I am aware of all the genetic risk factors of being of African and European descent.

Asian Glow

My mom, dad and brothers. My mother was pregnant with me in this photo.

My Japanese grandfather died when my mother was five. Consequently I have no more understanding of what it means to be Asian than someone with zero Asian blood. I never knew the Asian Glow was a thing. I just thought I got drunk easily.

Asian Glow

My maternal grandfather and great-grandfather, circa 1929, Osaka, Japan.












It got me thinking about people who are adopted and have no clue what's in there. Prior to genetic and DNA testing, our methods for finding these things out was trial and error. Sometimes people die(d) because they don't/didn't know they have something inherent in one race but not others.

But even with the advancements in medicine that allow us to know what's in our DNA, without benefit of oral history handed down to us from our ancestors, we have no way of knowing if so and so relative had similar problems, which could lead us to testing, diagnosis and treatment.

We live in a world so divided that we're often pit against one another. Imagine a world where we not only celebrate our differences, we use them to share valuable information like this.

Yes, we know the genetic mutation that causes Tay-Sachs is all but unique to people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, that Sickle cell anemia is most commonly found in those of African and Mediterranean descent and that Cystic fibrosis is more common in people of European descent, but there are a host of other genetic diseases many of us know nothing about.

The Asian Glow is a prime example of something if I'd known about my Asian heritage, I might have learned about before I was 52 years and discovered only because of my compromised thyroid function.

So many people who were adopted and those of mixed race are walking around completely unaware of what's lurking in their bodies that could lead to long term damage, disease and even death.

Ultimately I come to this: race shouldn't be a four-letter word we use as a weapon against each other. It is something scientists and researchers should be using as a tool to prevent illness. I know, I'm preaching to the choir.