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Too Tipsy? Here’s How Science Could One Day Help Sober You Up When Drunk

Sobering up takes time, but researchers are working on ways to speed the process up.

Holly Large - Editorial Assistant

Holly Large

Holly Large - Editorial Assistant

Holly Large

Jr Copy Editor & Staff Writer

Holly is a graduate medical biochemist with an enthusiasm for making science interesting, fun and accessible.

Jr Copy Editor & Staff Writer

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drunk woman in a festive cap holding champagne in hands

Everybody has a supposed remedy for drunkenness, but they rarely turn out to be true.

Image credit: nelen/Shutterstock.com

It’s that time of year with Christmas parties abound, and also the time of year when many people will be standing in line for a club, meeting the eyes of bouncers, and suddenly realizing they may have had one free drink too many. Whilst there are folk remedies galore for sobering yourself up enough to be allowed in and cut some dodgy shapes on the dancefloor, they also rarely work. Thankfully, scientists are on the job of finding a solution.

Take a deep breath

Though designed primarily as a rescue therapy for severe alcohol intoxication, researchers have been working on a simple method to eliminate alcohol from the body: breathing.

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The liver is responsible for clearing more than 90 percent of the alcohol in a human body; in this case, only time will help you to fully sober up, as the liver does its job at a constant rate that can’t be increased. For people with life-threatening blood-alcohol concentration, this leaves medics with few treatment options beyond supportive measures like giving oxygen and intravenous fluids.

What the researchers, led by Dr Joseph Fisher, looked to target was the remaining 10 percent – some alcohol is eliminated by the lungs. They hypothesized that the harder someone breathed, the more alcohol would be expelled. 

"But you can't just hyperventilate, because in a minute or two you would become light-headed and pass out," explained Fisher in a statement

Instead, the researchers created a device that allowed hyperventilation levels of breathing without the nasty side effects. "It's very basic, low-tech device that could be made anywhere in the world: no electronics, no computers or filters are required,” said Fisher. 

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In a proof-of-concept study group of five healthy men with around a 0.1 percent blood alcohol concentration, alcohol was eliminated at least three times faster than through the liver alone.

Given the small sample size of this study, further research would be required to validate the device before it could reach a clinical setting, let alone someone’s bag on a night out. Fisher remained optimistic, telling Thornhill Medical: “I am hopeful that with further validation studies, our method can easily become a standard approach to treat many types of poisonings around the world, saving many with carbon monoxide, ethanol, methanol and solvent poisoning.”

(Hormone) shots, shots, shots

Shots might not sound like the solution to drunkenness, but they potentially could be if that shot is actually an injection of fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21).

FGF21 is a hormone released by the liver in times of metabolic stress, such as downing large quantities of alcohol. While previous studies have suggested it might help to increase thirst to prevent hydration, suppress the desire to knock back another pint, and protect the liver against injury, research published earlier this year concluded that it could also help to restore balance and coordination – in mice, at least. 

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The team gave alcohol to both mice genetically modified to not produce FGF21 and a control group –sadly, not in tiny pint glasses. They discovered that whilst ethanol was broken down are the same rate in both, it took longer for the genetically altered group to recover their balance. When given an injection of FGF21, however, those mice were able to “sober up” and regain their balance around 50 percent more quickly than those given a control treatment.

“We’ve further shown that by increasing FGF21 concentrations even higher by injection, we can dramatically accelerate recovery from intoxication,” said co-senior study author Steven Kliewer in a statement.

Kliewer further explained that FGF21 exerted this effect by activating a part of the brain associated with alertness: the locus coeruleus, which is found in the brainstem. Quite how it achieves this is unclear and there’s no saying that the same effect would be seen in the human brain, although the team is working on solving at least the latter of those questions.

“Our studies reveal that the brain is the major site of action for FGF21’s effects,” said fellow co-senior study author David Mangelsdorf. “We are now exploring in greater depth the neuronal pathways by which FGF21 exerts its sobering effect.”

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For now at least, sobering up quickly doesn’t seem to be an option – so maybe go easy on the festive tipples if you want to make sure all your colleagues get to bear witness to your funky fresh dance moves.


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