How does alcohol affect breathing?

Hangover after drinking alcohol: Breathing properly makes you sober

If you drink too much alcohol, you simply have too much poison in your blood that your body cannot get rid of quickly enough. After all, our liver takes care of about 90 percent of the ethanol-alcohol: As long as it is healthy, it breaks down the toxin reliably, but at an excruciatingly slow speed when a hangover. In addition, this metabolic process cannot be accelerated, which makes anti-hangover tricks that have been rumored up to now ineffective. A Canadian research team has a new idea: just breathe away the alcohol.

The group led by anesthetist Joseph Fisher from the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute has been studying the effects of breathing on the components in the blood for some time. Now they investigated the observation that the alcohol concentration in the blood drops faster when people breathe faster and deeper: According to the theory, ethanol then gets out of the blood faster via the pulmonary capillaries into the air and is ultimately exhaled instead of being broken down in the liver have to.

This article is featured in Spectrum Health, 4/2021

In the experiment, the scientists checked whether this effect could be measured in practice. To do this, five male volunteers drank the precisely defined amount of 0.5 grams of ethanol per kilogram of live weight in the form of a vodka-water mixture. The initially steep and then gradually falling blood alcohol level as well as the respiratory rate and, using a mask, the composition of the exhaled breath of the seated test persons were carefully monitored for around three hours with various analytical devices.

Breathing very quickly and deeply clearly has an influence, as the authors summarize in the magazine "Scientific Reports": In hyperventilating people, the alcohol content in the blood drops at least three times faster than it would be if only the liver were to extract and break down ethanol from the blood would. In real life and in the Canadian researchers' experiment, however, hyperventilation is not a means of detoxification: with the higher breathing rate, we also give too much CO2 which can lead to fainting after a short time.

For this reason, the team relied on a breathing technique known in sports science and among pulmonologists, isocapnic hyperpnea. It enables significantly deeper breathing - i.e. hyperpnea - which does not simultaneously lead to a threatening drop in the carbon dioxide content in the blood, known as hypocapnia. Essentially, this is achieved through the targeted mixing of the air in a test person's mask, in which exhaled air, carbon dioxide and fresh air are mixed in such a way that the carbon dioxide content of the breathed air and the blood remain in balance - even if the breathing rate changes. In the experiment, the tipsy people connected to the small device now consciously breathed faster and deeper, which led to the alcohol level falling rapidly.

The scientists believe that their method of detoxification can help in severe clinical cases of alcohol poisoning, where dialysis or other highly technical methods are not possible. The effect of isocapnic hyperpnea detoxification must first be examined in larger studies. Because of the known side effects of hypocapnia, the researchers expressly warn against mere rapid, deep breathing, i.e. hyperventilating without targeted carbon dioxide compensation.