Story by Janice Jann.
Studies indicate that nearly 40 percent of Asian American women drink alcohol and, while that’s less than the 55.2 percent national average, we are at a higher risk for all sorts of medical issues due to our binge drinking. So why do we do it? Editor Janice Jann investigates.
As I lean over the toilet bowl, my hair grazing the rim, I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the water. “Who is this puke-strewn girl, bleary-eyed and green-faced, with her pajamas on backwards, staring back at me?” I think to myself. I mutter, “Never again, never a—,” before nausea sweeps in.
There have been many morning afters like this in the years I have been drinking, each time steeped with more regret than the last. Most of my peers have stories like mine. Many laugh, “Who hasn’t gone through it?”
As normal as binge drinking has become, new studies indicate that Asian American women may want to hold off on that second cocktail the next time they drink for reasons more than just avoiding the toilet bowl the next morning.
The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that the national average of alcohol use for all adults in the U.S. is 55.2 percent, while the national average for Asian Americans is 39.8 percent.
Genetic factors play an important role in why Asian have lower rates of alcohol consumption, according to Tamara Wall, a University of California, San Diego professor of psychology and the director of Psychological Services for the Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System. Studies have shown that 30 to 50 percent of the Asian population have a gene, inactive aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 (ALDH2–2), which causes them to metabolize alcohol differently from people who do not have this gene. This manifests itself physically through headaches, nausea and facial flushing, a.k.a. the “Asian glow.”
Jess, 24, can attest that facial flushing causes her to drink less. “I think if I didn’t have it, I’d be more open to having a casual cocktail with friends and clients,” she says. However, that hasn’t stopped her from binge drinking one recent weekend. Stressed out about her job and living situation for the past couple of months, she “needed a way to just vent and live in the moment.” According to Jess, “I was determined to let myself loose and it was actually my goal to drink until I didn’t remember anything at all.” After four double shots of tequila and two single shots, she did exactly that and stayed in bed sick until 4:30 the next afternoon. “I think it was the stress that had been piling on that pushed me over the edge,” she says.
Using alcohol to self-medicate, to relieve stress or to forget problems, has become an increasingly common occurrence among women of the post-Baby Boomer age. As more women enter the workforce, they have to deal with the stressors of the 21st century: increasing challenges in their careers; cultural norms of the workplace, which often includes happy hours and two-martini lunches; motherhood and familial obligations; the list goes on.
Christina, an attorney, agrees. When asked whether work causes her to drink more, she says, “Oh, definitely. That’s a definite issue. I think one reason why people drink so much, especially in my profession, is we’re pretty stressed out. We’re responsible for other people’s issues so when we do have a chance for release, it does get out of hand. Alcohol lets you forget about things for a moment. I knew of one associate who was so stressed, she used to drink every morning before going to work. It was a way to numb herself before she had to deal with the day.”
Though Christina may drink out of stress, she also drinks to celebrate. “After I passed the bar exam, I went out with a friend and I was taking shots galore,” she remembers. “I drank so much tequila that it made me sick to my stomach. I just didn’t give a sh—t that day because I was so happy I passed.”
By the end of the night, Christina “was sitting at my bathroom, wanting to die. You just wanted it to be over with. Every time something like that happens, I tell myself I will never do that again and it happens again.”
Meky had a similar experience on her birthday. “I’m kind of embarrassed to say I got wasted on my 25th birthday and not, like, my 21st or something,” she laughs, thinking back to the celebratory weekend where she downed five Jack Daniel shots in less than an hour, was carried to her car on a friend’s back, and woke up the next morning, her clothes piled by the door.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse defines binge drinking for women to be four drinks over a time span of two hours, but once you’ve hit that zone, it’s often difficult to stop at merely four drinks for the night. “It all starts tasting the same after a while,” says Christina. “You become desensitized after a certain amount.”
What’s scarier is that blackouts and vomiting are not the only negative consequences associated with binge drinking. Wall cites an increase in dangerous behaviors such as driving while intoxicated and risky sexual activities.
Binge drinking could also lead to alcoholism, which will require CA drug and alcohol detoxification eventually.
And even though the ALDH2–2 gene have put Asians at a lower risk for developing alcohol problems, it puts them at a higher risk for developing medical problems. Wall lists esophageal cancer, pancreatic cancer, hepatitis and liver problems as common problems for Asian binge drinkers. “The data are pretty clear that if you have the [gene] and you drink heavily, you’re much more likely to developing head and neck cancer,” she adds.
Being an Asian woman, there are even more consequences to frequent binge drinking. In a 2008 New York Magazine article, Susan Foster of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University said, “There are huge differences in the way our bodies metabolize alcohol. Women have less body water and more body fat than men. The water dilutes the alcohol in the bloodstream, and will stay in her body longer, even if she is the same size as the guy.” What that means is that women get inebriated with lower levels of consumption at a faster rate. Additionally, alcohol has been known to interfere with fertility and increase the risk of breast cancer. Some researchers believe that a woman who has four drinks a day would increase her nongenetic chance of developing breast cancer by 32 percent.
Freaked out yet? Researching this story has made me think twice about reaching for that soju bottle again at our next staff happy hour. Now, instead of just dreading how I’ll feel trying to get the alcohol out of my system, I’ll also worry a little about what it’s doing inside my body. Just thinking about it stresses me out so much I want to grab a drink.
So what are some alternatives for a lush like me?
“Working out is probably a more positive avenue,” says Christina about dealing with work pressure. “I find as I get older, I try things like meditation courses to help me not think and stress out as much.”
Moderation is also key. “The standard guidelines for women is you shouldn’t drink more than one drink per day, nd for men two drinks,” says Wall.
Sure, a mere one drink a day could be a buzzkill, but at least I’m at a lower risk for killing myself faster.
This story was originally featured in our Winter 2011-2012 issue. Get yours here.