There are many folk remedies for having over-indulged in alcohol, but alas they usually fail in testing. This is fine when you've just had one beer too many, less so when facing fatal alcohol poisoning. However, a study has shown you can achieve surprising results through controlled heavy breathing.
An estimated 3 million people die each year from alcohol-related causes. In many cases that has to do with long-term over-consumption, but for some it's the consequence of an extreme bender when hospital facilities were unavailable.
Dr Joseph Fisher of Canada's University Health Network noted that once ethanol hits the bloodstream 90 percent is cleared by being metabolized in the liver, an organ that can't be hurried. Aside from dialysis, all that can currently be done for someone with a dangerously high blood alcohol level is to treat the symptoms, for example, ensuring they get sufficient oxygen to the brain.
The other 10 percent of alcohol elimination takes place through the kidneys and lungs. The latter is the reason breath tests reveal blood alcohol concentrations, and we can tell someone has been drinking by smelling the air they breathe out. Fisher and colleagues wondered if harder and faster breathing might process the alcohol more quickly. The idea has been used for removing harmful blood impurities like carbon monoxide acquired in less fun ways.
In Scientific Reports, the team reveals the idea can work, but some help is needed. “You can't just hyperventilate, because in a minute or two you would become light-headed and pass out," Fisher pointed out in a statement.
For all the harm carbon dioxide causes in the atmosphere, it plays a vital role in the bloodstream, and breathing too fast expels it, along with the ethanol. If the tingling in the limbs and light-headedness doesn't stop the over-breathing, fainting will.
Dr Fisher and his team created a device that captures some of the expelled CO2 and returns it to the body on inhaling, thus maintaining optimum levels of the gas in the blood-stream while alcohol is steadily eliminated. "It's a very basic, low-tech device that could be made anywhere in the world: no electronics, no computers or filters are required,” Dr Fisher . "It's almost inexplicable why we didn't try this decades ago."
So far the team's sample group is limited to five healthy men with blood alcohol concentrations around 0.1 percent; unlikely to be dangerous unless behind the wheel of a car or operating machinery. How well it would work in a clinical setting remains to be seen, since people drunk enough to be in danger might not follow instructions. Nevertheless, those who participated in the trial were able to increase ethanol elimination by a factor of three. Participants found the process boring, but not uncomfortable. If nothing else, Fisher's device could be useful for those who need to sober up fast after overindulging.
This article was originally published in November 2020.