Hyperventilating can help clear alcohol from body faster, researchers find

Discovery could potentially help treat patients suffering from alcohol poisoning, Canadian team says

Three million people around the world die from alcohol-related deaths each year and emergency room physicians have few effective tools to treat acute alcohol poisoning.
Three million people around the world die from alcohol-related deaths each year and emergency room physicians have few effective tools to treat acute alcohol poisoning. Photograph: sumetee Theesungnern/Alamy
Three million people around the world die from alcohol-related deaths each year and emergency room physicians have few effective tools to treat acute alcohol poisoning. Photograph: sumetee Theesungnern/Alamy
in Toronto

Last modified on Tue 17 Nov 2020 06.43 EST

Researchers in Canada have discovered that hyperventilation can significantly increase the rate at which the body eliminates alcohol, in a breakthrough that could save thousands of lives.

Three million people around the world die from alcohol-related deaths each year and emergency room physicians have few effective tools to treat acute alcohol poisoning.

In a proof-of-concept paper published this week in the journal Scientific Reports, a group of Toronto researchers describe how hyperventilating into a device which regulates carbon dioxide levels can eliminate alcohol far faster than conventional treatments.

The device is the size of a briefcase and delivers carbon dioxide to users from a tank, ensuring that CO2 levels in the blood remain constant – thus preventing dizziness and nausea during hyperventilation.

Lead researcher Joseph Fisher, an anesthetist and senior scientist at Toronto General Hospital Research Institute said hospitals are often helpless in cases of alcohol poisoning. Currently, the only intervention to rid the body of excess ethanol is through dialysis – a largely inefficient process.

“[Patients] are coming in unconscious and highly alcohol-intoxicated so they’re hard to examine … And there’s nothing you can do. You have to wait until their livers metabolize it,” Fisher told the Canadian Press.

Operating on the hypothesis the lungs could play a critical role in clearing ethanol, the team had a group of five adults drink half a glass of vodka on two occasions.

After the first drink, it took the participants between two and three hours to clear half of the ethanol from their body, according to Breathalyzer results. The second time, they were instructed to hyperventilate. With each exhalation, Fisher says, alcohol that has evaporated from the blood is released.

The body was able to eliminate the ethanol at a rate three times faster than waiting for the liver to process it. Fisher cautions that the sample is small and requires further testing.

But the peer-reviewed developments are nonetheless promising.

“I used to be an emergency doc and I know they have big issues with patients who – on top of everything else – are also alcohol-intoxicated,” said Fisher, adding that it could also save the lives of young children who accidentally ingest alcohol. “Usually those kids are down for the count but this may be an approach.”

The treatment is unlikely to be repackaged as a cure for hangovers: researchers found that the process was most effective for high levels of intoxication.

• This article was amended on 17 November 2020 to clarify that hyperventilating helps eliminate alcohol from the body, but does not metabolize it as an earlier version said. A substance is metabolized when it is affected by chemical processes in the body.