Press release: Understanding alcohol intolerance – for a happy and a healthy Lunar New Year

February 2024 | 9 minutes

As preparations get underway for the Lunar New Year, Alcohol Change UK is raising awareness about the impact that alcohol can have on those from East Asian descent to help anyone affected make informed choices about their drinking.

The annual celebration for the Lunar New Year – also sometimes referred to as Spring Festival or Chinese New Year which is celebrated across East Asia and by East Asian communities around the world – is a time to make a fresh start and embrace new opportunities.

Alcohol Change UK is taking the opportunity to publish a new factsheet aimed at helping East Asian people understand more about alcohol and how it can affect their health. The information sheet focusses on alcohol intolerance amongst East Asian people – sometimes known as the “alcohol flush reaction”, “Asian flush” or “Asian glow” – and has been produced in collaboration with the Stanford Center for Asian Health Research and Education (Stanford CARE) and Stanford Cardiovascular Institute.

Alcohol intolerance affects between a third and a half of East Asian people. Worldwide, around 540 million people whose family origins are in China, Japan, Korea, or Taiwan experience it, including tens of thousands of people in the UK.

The reasons for this are genetic, with people of East Asian heritage much more likely to have genes that mean they don’t produce all the necessary enzymes to break down alcohol. As a result, toxic byproducts of alcohol can build up in the body, causing blushing, sometimes accompanied by a rapid heartbeat, a headache, nausea, itching, a rash, and even vomiting.

More seriously, people who are alcohol intolerant have a higher risk of cancer of the oesophagus (food pipe) if they drink alcohol.

Although many people who experience alcohol intolerance will already know about it, there will be others who remain unaware about the potential impact of alcohol on their health.

Alcohol Change UK is aiming to address that and bust some of the myths about genetic alcohol intolerance – such as the belief that it can be overcome by drinking more alcohol to boost your tolerance; or that it can be successfully treated with antihistamines. Both approaches can actually increase the risks to your health. Instead, the charity is offering advice on how to moderate your drinking or stop altogether, including information on alcohol-free and low-alcohol drinks.

The charity is also calling on friends, family members and colleagues to support anyone who chooses not to drink for whatever reason. We should not be asking them to give us a reason and should never question their decision.

We should also consider that alcohol intolerance can be really uncomfortable and could be one of the factors for them. With a mixed and diverse world, we shouldn’t assume we know someone’s genetic heritage.

People who experience alcohol intolerance symptoms may also wish to speak with their doctor about it, and should certainly do that if they have any of the symptoms of oesophageal cancer – such as problems swallowing, and indigestion.

Warren, a member of the British Chinese community, shared his experience of alcohol intolerance:

“Growing up in the UK, alcohol is such an unavoidable part of life and work. I started having pints at university. It’s what you do and how you make friends. I was simply not aware of the increased risks of alcohol for some East Asians.

“As someone with alcohol intolerance, it was always a bit socially embarrassing having a red face when drinking. You try to minimise it, but after a while you just deal with it. For me, drinking alcohol nearly became a badge of honour – that despite this intolerance I could still ‘keep up’, and then some!

“Starting a conversation about this issue is so important. It’s much needed and way overdue. Understanding that my body is not able to process alcohol in the same way as other people do – and that what’s happening inside is more damaging – makes it very real. Knowing that it’s riskier for me, I’ve made some changes to my life – most obviously reducing my alcohol intake.”

Andrew Misell from Alcohol Change UK said:

“Firstly, we’d like to wish everyone a happy and healthy Lunar New Year.

“We’re pleased to be sharing this information as we know that East Asian people often say they feel like an invisible minority in the UK. But if we as a society are serious about reducing alcohol harm and about tackling health inequalities, we need to do more to meet the specific health needs of the UK’s diverse population. That means making sure that British East Asians aren’t overlooked when we’re providing information and support around alcohol.

“Healthcare professionals should be aware of alcohol intolerance when speaking with East Asian patients, and give sensitive and sympathetic advice on the risks of alcohol. Education and training for professionals should cover Asian alcohol intolerance and how to support people with it.”

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