My first taste of binge drinking arrived in a back room of a fraternity house at the University of Southern California, where I arrived as a boyish freshman in the fall of 2009. In the multicolored glow of Christmas string lights, a junior named René poured out two-ounce pulls of the budget whiskey Black Velvet for me and two friends. Freezer-cold Bud Lights served as the chaser.
Half a rap song later, René poured out a few more shots while regaling us with frat-boy tales of Vegas mixers and bid-night bonding. I didn’t drink much in high school, save for an occasional beer at band practice or a shot of mystery liquor at the few rowdy house parties I attended. But, without hesitation, I downed two more Black Velvet shots in quick succession. Then René laughed as he looked me in the eyes.
“You’re red like a cherry. Got that Asian glow!” he said.
I had no idea what that meant, and my face betrayed it.
“You’re about to be some kind of wasted, basically,” René added with a snort.
This was news to me, and I needed proof. I felt the buzz of the alcohol pulling me into a lazy sway as I walked down the hall to the bathroom. There was something else I hadn’t noticed, too — a dull headache and a heat in my cheeks that seemed to throb against the inside of my skin. I looked in the mirror and saw a face shining pink, with darker splotches near my neck and ears. Even my eyes were bloodshot. I splashed handfuls of cold water on my face once I got to the bathroom. It didn’t seem to help.
I wasn’t drunk enough to look this dead, I thought. More than that, it was flat-out unattractive. Nobody had actually insulted me yet, but I realized that anyone who saw me under a bright light would wonder what the hell was wrong with my face. That night ended with me being dragged home from a nearby Wendy’s, but as I became a more regular drinker, I learned that the glow was unpredictable and ferocious. Sometimes it would stay dormant during a night with countless drinks, but burst to life at a casual Thursday night dinner with wine. Sometimes it expressed as a mellow sun-kissed pink. Other times it bloomed as an angry crimson, bringing that headache with it again. No matter how it happened, though, I wanted to get out of public and from the eyes of anyone who might judge me.
Biologically speaking, the glow is actually the side effect of having too much acetaldehyde, a byproduct created when alcohol is digested, in the bloodstream. Most people naturally create enough of the enzyme that neutralizes toxic acetaldehyde, ALDH2, which means their bodies don’t react and create the flushing reaction. But some, namely 40 percent of East Asians, don’t generate enough of that critical enzyme.
This is a big deal to Asian Americans, at least based on a number of friends I spoke to who have the flushing problem (and cracks at it in pop culture like the TV show Fresh Off the Boat). Culturally speaking, glowing up is less of an issue in Asia, where so many people flush red that you’re not going to be called out. But Asians in the West live in a different context as minorities, where turning red can make you stick out like a sore thumb. “It sucks when people start joking with you, acting like you’re a child or that you’re incompetent because you can’t hold your drink,” one 28-year-old Asian-American man, Alex, tells me. “I’m not even drunk! I’m just trying to have a good time, and I feel like all eyes are on me, as the weird Asian kid.”
It didn’t take much internet sleuthing to figure out a makeshift cure when I was in college. Certain heartburn medications, namely Pepcid AC and Zantac (aka famotidine and ranitidine), were widely believed to settle the glow if taken before the first drink. In fact, for the last decade, I’ve been taking Zantac before every occasion where I knew I’d be having more than one drink. There have been many times where I left a bar to go to a drugstore after forgetting my stash of Zantac at home. I don’t always need it to drink, but it does give me confidence that I won’t be tomato-faced an hour into a gathering.
So I was surprised last week when I spotted something called the Redee Patch, billed as an alternative to the heartburn-med fix, while browsing Instagram. The makers of the patch claimed that their sticky rectangle of supplements would prevent the incandescent glow from ever appearing. They also claimed my homemade remedy was missing the point entirely. As Redee founder Ryan Lee discovered, the heartburn meds only helped cover the body’s allergy-like reaction to the toxin — without doing anything to eradicate the acetaldehyde itself. “This is something that’s 30 times as toxic as alcohol itself. Studies have shown that it causes cell damage and increases cancer risk in people who lack the ability to process acetaldehyde,” Lee explains. “Then we found that some natural substances could help boost enzyme activity to actually lock up and neutralize that root problem. So I realized that Redee could be a fix, not a cover-up.”
It’s not clear why this inherited deficiency in ALDH2 is so common in East Asians, though the domestication of rice as a staple crop may have had something to do with it. People with two copies of the gene that creates this enzyme deficiency actually have such an intense and nauseous reaction to alcohol that they can’t drink much of it at all. But those with just one copy, like (presumably) me, can drink heavily even despite the flushing effect.
This is a problem because the effects of acetaldehyde aren’t minor. A two-beer-a-day drinker deficient in ALDH2 has six to 10 times the risk of developing esophageal cancer versus a non-deficient drinker. And while the body can repair busted DNA, researchers are warning that “Asian glow” is a sign of major damage that the body might struggle to keep up with.
Lee is just 23, having graduated last year with degrees in finance and real estate from Florida State University. Without a medical or scientific background to rely on, he reached out to alcohol metabolism researchers who had authored clinical trials in order to begin formulating the Redee patch. He also found some pills sold on the market as “hangover relief” or a fix for alcohol-related nausea, and used their ingredient lists as a starting point.
Developing a patch, however, was more complicated than filling a capsule. It took three years, and during the process Lee honed in on glutathione, an antioxidant that binds with acetaldehyde, as the critical ingredient. The patch also includes a number of other antioxidants and amino acids that promote glutathione production, like N-acetylcysteine and L-theanine. This is a major difference between Redee and some other products that aim to stop “Asian glow,” Lee claims.
“We’re not really trying to fix an external appearance. That’s part of it, but the real problem is people who can’t have a glass of wine without feeling bad internally as far as nausea, a faster heart rate and the headache,” Lee says. “We’re not trying to encourage binge drinking or more frequent drinking. We want to give people the freedom just to drink on their own terms.”
The patch first began selling in March, and Lee says about 70 percent of surveyed Redee users report that it works. I guess you can lump me in with that bunch, after four test runs at various times of the weekend with all sorts of drinks, ranging from a stiff whiskey cocktail at dinner to a six-pack of pale ale while chatting with visiting friends late at night. I placed one patch (you can use up to two at a time) on a smooth part of my wrist, where it stayed secure for hours. I didn’t feel the heat or see a glow, even as my drinking increased toward the end of each day. At about a dollar a patch, it’s a much more expensive solution than popping a heartburn pill, but the price is easy to stomach if you buy that acetaldehyde damage is significant. The only downside was the weird smell of the supplements on the patch, which caught my attention a few times each day.
Dana Hunnes, senior dietician at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, looked over the ingredient list with me and confirmed that, for the most part, it’s a logical mix of common supplements that seem properly designed to work in tandem. “What’s worth keeping in mind is supplements aren’t regulated in any way. There’s no need to prove that something is effective, which is a problem,” she says. “But the Redee ingredient list seems like a panacea, because it should help detoxify the acetaldehyde but also replenish some of the things lost in that process.”
The unique patch format can release glutathione more slowly, giving the user effects over a longer period of time, she adds. And Hunnes notes that, unlike many other supplements, there’s no vague placebo effect that Redee users would fall for — “Either it’s gonna handle the chemical problem for you, or it won’t,” she concludes.
While “Asian glow” can affect others ethnicities too, Redee is planning on marketing directly at the Asian-American community, according to operations head Emily Basileo. A veteran of analyzing and funding startups, Basileo joined the Redee team based on Lee’s business plan and her own nightmare stories as an Asian drinker. Her reaction to acetaldehyde turns her into a loopy “one-and-done” drinker — an inconvenience when she’s trying to spend more time with bosses or colleagues in a post-work setting, Basileo says. Not being able to fit in isn’t just a social problem, but a potentially professional one when networking culture makes drinking a normalizing act, she adds.
“This product is, of course, for all Asians who feel uncomfortable when they drink. But we do think it’s easier to market in the U.S. We wanted to make a product that works for us, Asian Americans,” she says. “And the need for this is obvious when you’re the one red Asian in a sea of white.”
Basileo notes that the initial sales have been “overwhelming,” and the company has plans to debut a much larger marketing campaign later this year. Meanwhile, Lee and his research consultants are currently manufacturing new formulations to help bump that alleged 70 percent success rate even higher, with the goal of rolling it out in 2019.
The patch may never work for some, but it’s worth keeping in mind why we Asians have this enzyme deficiency to begin with. Researchers found that the genetic mutation was as high as 90 percent in some Asian populations, and it’s believed that its prevalence helps protect communities against alcoholism, as East Asian alcoholics lack the mutation. The spread of the mutation also helps prevent cancer from alcoholic consumption for a similar reason, as another study found.