Asian Glow

By Dyske    February 14th, 2013

I recently came across this expression, “Asian glow” or “Asian blush”, and a new supplement called “NoGlo” that prevents it. And, last night, I went to see the opening of the show at Guggenheim Museum featuring a Japanese art collective called Gutai (which, by the way, was quite interesting, but that’s another story), and they had a full bar open to all the guests which naturally included a lot of Asian people. Sure enough, I saw some of their faces glowing red.

We want to believe that race is just a superficial difference but there are certain characteristics that are clearly different by race. Asians are less tolerant of alcohol, and I have been wondering why. I figure evolution must have something to do with it.

I also came cross this article about alcohol reducing the risk of food poisoning, which I had assumed was an urban myth, but it is apparently true; drinking alcohol can kill bacteria in our stomach. This made me ask: Would it be possible that we evolved to like drinking alcohol because those who liked it had a higher rate of survival? That is, the fact that it can kill bacteria is not a fringe benefit, but is the main reason why we developed a taste for it. In other words, those who happen to think alcohol tastes good had a higher rate of survival, so they were more likely to pass on their genes, and their offsprings would share the same taste for alcohol. Perhaps at the beginning of human history, not many people liked alcohol but they were eliminated through food poisoning, and the rest of us survived because we like the taste of alcohol. I contacted Dr. Hanson who wrote the article referrenced above and asked about this, and he agreed that alcohol does provide a benefit for natural selection.

Now back to Asian glow: Why would Asians fall behind in this department? Is it possible that Asians had more advanced knowledge in preventing food contamination? Or, were they generally cleaner? Or, did they have better techniques for preserving food? If you have any theories, please share with me.

17 Responses

  1. Grozz says:

    As I understand it, the main theory is that in pre-modern times without easy access to clean drinking water, Asians boiled their water throughout the day for tea, and the rest of the world mostly drank fermented drinks. in which the alcohol protected the drink from bacteria. In Europe, thoughout most of history, people drank more small beer or similar drinks than plain fresh water.

  2. Dyske says:

    Wow. Tea. Yes, that would make perfect sense. Thank you for sharing that.

  3. Frank Luo says:

    Europe was a filthy, disease ridden place for centuries, from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance at least. There was a reason that, even though it originated in Tibet, Black Death never caught on in Asia the way it did in Europe — sweeping through in wave after wave. Comparatively speaking, Asians generally lived under much, much more sanitary conditions, because the Chinese pioneered city planning, public works, and other niceties that were widely copied around Asia — Kyoto was basically laid out on a Chinese pattern, which simply made sense — north-south avenues and east-west streets. The intuitive and logical nature of the pattern is irrefutable and remains in use today.

    Other habits that help to explain why alcohol enjoyment and tolerance did not offer as much of an evolutionary advantage in Asia are tea and a longstanding distrust of raw food and “raw water” i.e. water that has not been boiled. Pretty much everything is cooked through, and fruits are peeled at the time of consumption — when I was a kid, we didn’t have any such thing as grapes that you ate whole. We only had grapes that you peeled. The Chinese ate raw fish once upon a time, but the practice died out until it was reverse-imported back from Japan. The Japanese are culturally OCD about cleanliness and orderliness.

    Natural selection just didn’t matter as much when cultural habits already protect people from the conditions that thrived on filth.

  4. ChuckRamone says:

    There was an interesting study done about this gene:

    They concluded the trait was actually selected for in Neolithic times, though they’re not sure why. They also found that it probably originated somewhere in southeast China and was spread around Asia by migrants who practiced rice farming.

    There’s a theory on wikipedia that people with this gene might be more resistant to infection because they quickly accumulate acetaldehyde, which kills parasites.

  5. Matsukaze says:

    Their red face don’t mean their metabolic capability had not been enough evolutionary.

    Maybe that is noly the genetic traits.

    A research for the difference between East and West people’s capacity for liquor can tell us the answer.

  6. Frank Luo says:

    The article that ChuckRamone cited is very interesting. It basically theorizes that the reduced capacity to metabolize alcohol is a *positive* trait.

    It actually makes sense — if it is not the alcohol itself but the aldehydes that alcohol is metabolized into that has the positive effects, the slow removal of aldehydes from the system makes more efficient use of any alcohol consumed — a few shots will have the same positive anti-parasitic effect that would require much more alcohol to achieve in a person without that gene. Since alcohol is a luxury in the sense that you need to sacrifice food to make it, this mutation would be very positive in that it allows a population to receive the same benefits while sacrificing less food to make alcohol.

    It might actually help to explain Asia’s extraordinarily large population throughout history — being more disease resistant because of this trait, in combination with the C-4 photosynthesis process that makes rice so amazingly productive a grain even without fallowing.

    Co-evolution with the advent of rice farming might be explained by the fact that rice is grown in paddies — essentially artificial swamps. Rice farmers tread in calf-deep mud day in and day out — ideal conditions for parasitic infection. Wheat in comparison is grown in dry ground.

    Anyhow, I don’t think that race and ethnicity determines alcohol tolerance in general. I would say it’s really physical size and practice that are the determining factors. Asians tend to be physically smaller, so might have less tolerance in that sense. But I have met MANY people from around the world, and weight for weight, never once did I meet a population that drank so hard and still walked home without difficulty as the hardy old men in the Japanese country. In comparison, the Chinese generally speaking rarely drink at all — only on special occasions.

  7. Frank Luo says:

    By the way, a taste for alcohol would not require any secondary effect driving factors such as anti-parasitic properties. Alcohol is relatively calorically dense. That means that a taste for alcohol should in general be a positively selected trait.

    The reduced capacity to metabolize alcohol does differ. Some have it worse than others. It might have to do with how many copies of which gene you have. But it might also have to do with certain other things — for example, during which stage of metabolic removal does the slowdown occur (alcohol is not simply swept from the blood as most people think — it goes through several stages So severe or complete alcohol intolerance might be from completely a different mutation than the ADH1B Arg47His polymorphism that retains aldehydes in the blood.

  8. Jennifer Sari says:

    It is my understanding from a Medical professional, the reason why Asians don’t tolerate alcohol as well as other races is because we lack “Transaminase” – the enzyme to digest the sugar in the alcohol which is why Asians tend to get drunk faster. The American-Indians also lack this enzyme. But if you trace their history, they came from Asia over the land bridge that once existed between Siberia and Alaska into North America. As a result of the low tolerance, both Asians and American Indians have a high rate of alcoholism and alcohol related diseases like cirrhosis of the liver. The “Asian Glow” or “Asian Blush” (which is also called florid) is an indirect result of a weakness in the Liver from alcohol consumption. I hope this answers your question. (‘-‘)

  9. paul says:

    In Thailand, drinking alcohol is considered to be immoral because of the 5 precepts of Buddhism. Not sure how that fits in with your theory.

    My Thai friends also tell me that their is a problem of lactose intolerance, because dairy is not a common part of their diet.

  10. Frank Luo says:

    Lactose intolerance is “normal” for humans. It is the ability to digest lactose as adults that is the evolved characteristic. On the whole, westerners evolved to digest lactose to take advantage of the nutritional benefits of cattle husbandry.

    On the same website that was posted, there were articles that showed that the ability to digest lactose as adults evolved along with the domestication of African aurochs — the ancestors of cattle — in northern Africa. The combination of later introduction of cattle and much higher intensity in use of land (due to the high number of persons supported) in East Asia led to less prevalent dairy consumption, so lactose tolerance never evolved in Asia to the extent that it did in Europe, just as acetylaldehyde retention never evolved in Europe to the extent that it did in the rice farming regions of Asia.

  11. Rosencranz says:

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I tend to notice a lot of heavy drinking females end up with a lot of kids. Same goes for men. Perhaps (even if only relatively recently) it has started to affect evolution and it will continue to in the future.

  12. DFWDave says:

    Well, natural selection is quickly deselecting for alcohol tolerance. More people are dying in drunk driving accidents every year than are evolving into higher and higher forms of life. That’s for sure.

  13. John says:

    I honestly think you’re all making way too much of this. It’s a small degree of difference in a minor aspect of our genetics. Odds are it’s just pure chance. If it has some evolutionary advantage or disadvantage it would be so minor you’d have to see many billions of generations before it would have a measurable effect – and we (humans) simply haven’t been around that long.

  14. Frank Luo says:

    Human evolution is faster than you say. The fact that human beings who spent a hundred thousand years in Africa have black skin while those who spent a few thousand years in Europe have white skin clearly shows that evolution does not take billions of generations.

  15. Adam Ng says:

    Can’t wait for new questions in the Exam Room!!!!Luv ur questions soooooooo much!!!

  16. L says:

    Hmm…there are some pretty heavy duty drinkers in Japan…and China…and Korea…

    I read “alcohol reducing the risk of food poisoning” – and long ago I was taught to always drink liquor with raw fish!

  17. L says:

    According to this chart South Korea is #1 in the world in hard liquor (spirits) consumption per capita!

    Note that the chart is clickable.