Skip to main content

Toronto researchers have found a new way to speed up the body’s ability to rid itself of alcohol, a discovery they believe could one day help hospitals reduce the life-threatening effects of alcohol poisoning.

In a proof of concept study, published on Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers demonstrated that by getting participants to hyperventilate with the use of a special device, they were able to markedly increase the rate at which their bodies eliminated alcohol.

“It way exceeded our expectations,” said Joseph Fisher, an anesthetist and senior scientist at University Health Network (UHN)'s Toronto General Hospital Research Institute who led the study.

Consumed in large enough quantities, alcohol can cause organ failure and death. Alcohol contributes to thousands of deaths each year in Canada and is the cause of hundreds of hospitalizations each day across the country.

While doctors can provide supportive measures, such as oxygen or intravenous fluids, they currently have no way of removing alcohol from patients’ systems other than dialysis, which is not always feasible.

Apart from a negligible amount that is expelled through the lungs, alcohol is entirely metabolized by the liver at a rate that is constant, Dr. Fisher explains.

“You can imagine that you have a bucket, and then you have a teaspoon. And it doesn’t matter how much water is in the bucket, you can only take out so many teaspoons per minute,” he said.

But he and his colleagues hypothesized it is possible to coax the lungs to play a bigger role in clearing alcohol from the body through hyperventilation. The trouble, however, is people cannot hyperventilate long before feeling the side effects of breathing out too much carbon dioxide, Dr. Fisher said. Doing so alters the pH levels of the blood, leading to dizziness and passing out.

However, using a low-tech device he helped invent for Thornhill Medical, a spin-off company from UHN, the researchers were able to ensure carbon dioxide in the body remained at a normal level, allowing participants to tolerate hyperventilation. The device, which uses valves and is attached to a cylinder of carbon dioxide, is designed to deliver an amount of carbon dioxide that is proportional to how hard the user breathes.

Dr. Fisher and his team tested the method on five healthy volunteers, who were asked to drink about half a glass of vodka on two occasions. The first time, they took Breathalyzer tests and blood tests after about two to three hours to obtain control measurements. The second time, the volunteers used the device to hyperventilate. The researchers put a catheter in a vein in the participants' forearms and one in an artery of their wrists, which allowed them to measure how much alcohol was in the blood before and after it passed through the lungs.

“That’s important because the stuff that goes to the brain and the organs is the stuff that’s in the arteries,” Dr. Fisher said, noting, “As soon as they started hyperventilating within a minute or two, the concentration fell dramatically in the artery.”

Moreover, while the participants were able to clear about half the alcohol from their systems within two to three hours during the control portion of the trial, they were able to do so in about 40 minutes when hyperventilating.

Erik Swenson, a pulmonologist and professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Washington, who was not involved in the study, said the results show “pretty convincingly” that the method can make an important impact on the rate at which the body’s alcohol level falls.

Dr. Swenson said further study is needed to test this approach on a larger number of people, looking not only at whether their alcohol levels drop faster, but whether that translates to better clinical outcomes for patients. But, he said, he did not see it posing any side effects.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.