According to the World Health Organization, excessive alcohol use leads to 3 million deaths worldwide per year. In the US, 2,200 people a year die specifically from alcohol poisoning. Alcohol-related mortality shortens people’s lives by an average of 29 years.
Some of those lives could be saved by a simple device. New research out of the University Health Network in Canada—published November 12th in Scientific Reports, A Nature Research Journal—found a way to help people’s bodies metabolize alcohol faster.
Normally, the liver clears alcohol at a constant rate. According to the University Health Network, “Currently there is no other method, short of dialysis, whereby alcohol can be removed from the blood. This leaves as the only options to treat life-threatening alcohol levels supportive measures such as giving oxygen, intravenous fluids, breathing assistance, and treating any heart issues with drugs.”
The approach in the study is much less complex. The researchers found that breathing deeply and more rapidly eliminates alcohol through the lungs three times faster than through the liver alone. The study participants drank a relatively small amount of alcohol; the researchers suggested that with a larger amount, “the rate of elimination would be proportionally greater.”
But breathing in such a way—essentially, hyperventilating—can cause people to become lightheaded and even pass out. The rate by which hyperventilating eliminates alcohol is the same rate by which it gets rid of carbon dioxide, causing tingling, numbness, or fainting.
The device used by the researchers allows patients to breathe deeply and rapidly while replacing the amount of carbon dioxide lost—keeping CO2 at normal levels in the blood.
Dr. Joseph Fisher—anesthesiologist, Senior Scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, and one of the researchers on this study—said, “It’s a very basic, low-tech device that could be made anywhere in the world: no electronics, no computers or filters are required. It’s almost inexplicable why we didn’t try this decades ago.”
A basic device that makes people sober up faster might seem to have worrisome implications; for instance, people could eventually use it to lower their BAC before getting in a vehicle. This would be particularly problematic, because the study showed that when people stop using the device, their body immediately goes back to metabolizing alcohol at normal rates. You can’t hyperventilate into a machine while driving.
However, the device is only meant for use in a medical setting. The study is considered “proof of concept;” it showed that the idea of hyperventilating to metabolize alcohol faster is feasible and could have real-world applications. Further studies are needed before it could be implemented. But it could be a major breakthrough; a very simple way to stop preventable tragedies.
If you are struggling with alcohol use or a mental health disorder, there is help and hope. TruHealing Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you process the underlying reasons you used substances and build healthy coping skills for lasting recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.