I’d bet money that you’ve seen an unfortunate, tomato-red Asian person afflicted with the “Asian Glow.” To most, “Asian Glow” is a superficial problem at worst, and a good conversation starter at best. But I hope to illuminate that recent scientific research has shown that Asian Glow is nowhere near as benign as I once thought. In fact, if you are someone who experiences this Alcohol Flush Reaction, I hope to convince you to lower your alcohol intake. Alcohol could be a no if you suffer from Asian Glow.

What Causes Asian Glow?

In short, an accumulation of acetaldehyde, a compound formed when the body processes alcohol, which is “highly toxic” and causes “adverse effects [to] predominate.” These effects include “increased skin temperature and facial flushing; increased heart and respiration rates; pounding or racing of the heart … lowered blood pressure; narrowing of the airways ... nausea; and headache.” Normally, acetaldehyde is broken down by the enzyme ALDH2, but “nearly 40% of East Asians inherit an inactive ALDH2*2 variant”. These unfortunate Asians, “representing approximately 8% of the population [of the world],” are affected by much more than superficial redness. Consider this: One Japanese study found that a group of Japanese Asian-glowers were more likely to report subjective feelings of intoxication than non-Asian-glowers who ingested alcohol.

Does Asian Glow Predispose You to Cancer?

Why should you worry if you have Asian Glow? According to Brooks et al., “Although clinicians and the East Asian public generally know about the alcohol flushing response... few are aware of the accumulating evidence that ALDH2-deficient individuals are at much higher risk of esophageal cancer (specifically squamous cell carcinoma).” What’s worse is that esophageal cancer is “one of the deadliest cancers worldwide, with five-year survival rates of 15.6% in the United States.”

But how great is the risk, really? Could it be nothing to worry about? Most studies say no:

  • One study found that low-ALDH2 individuals have a 12 times higher risk for upper aerodigestive tract cancers than those with normal ALDH2 function.

  • Jin et al. found that inheriting the faulty ALDH2 variant “presents a significant risk factor for hepatocarcinogenesis,” suggesting an even greater human public health hazard than previously appreciated.” (Note that this study was written in 2015.)

  • “Case-control studies of various Japanese drinking populations (23–28) and Chinese alcoholics (29) have consistently demonstrated that the inactive ALDH2 encoded by the ALDH2*1/2*2 genotype is a strong risk factor for esophageal cancer,” according to Yokoyama and Omori.

Take this stuff with a grain of salt — admittedly, there wasn’t a whole lot of recent research on the subject to sift through. But even if these studies linking low-ALDH2 (and thus Asian Glow) to esophageal cancer are flukes, it’s apparent that being able to break down what the International Agency for Research on Cancer calls a “Group 1 Carcinogen” may be harmful to the body. So, Asian Glowers, please proceed with caution.

Alex Hwang is a freshman from Jones College at Rice University.


  1. Quertemont, E., & Didone, V. Role of acetaldehyde in mediating the pharmacological and behavioral effects of alcohol. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism 2006. 29.

  2. Brooks, P. J., Enoch, M. A., Goldman, D., Li, T. K., & Yokoyama, A. The alcohol flushing response: an unrecognized risk factor for esophageal cancer from alcohol consumption. PLoS Med 2009, 6.

  3. Jin, S., Chen, J., Chen, L., Histen, G., Lin, Z., Gross, S., ... & Cang, Y. ALDH2 (E487K) mutation increases protein turnover and promotes murine hepatocarcinogenesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2015, 112, 9088-9093.

  4. Fujita, G., & Nishida, Y. Effect of a small dose of alcohol on driving-related behavior of Japanese who self-reported facial flush and nonflushing. Perceptual and motor skills 2009, 109, 651-653.

  5. Yokoyama, A., Kato, H., Yokoyama, T., Tsujinaka, T., Muto, M., Omori, T., ... & Yoshimizu, H. Genetic polymorphisms of alcohol and aldehyde dehydrogenases and glutathione S-transferase M1 and drinking, smoking, and diet in Japanese men with esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. Carcinogenesis 2002, 23, 1851-1859.

  6. Wikipedia. International agency for research on cancer. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Agency_for_Research_on_Cancer#IARC_categories (Accessed 11/17/15), part of Wikipedia.