Booze can Increase Lung Injury Risk

Alcohol is a legally permitted drug that is considered to be the “third leading lifestyle related cause of death in the USA”.  Some people react badly to just one drink, and others need a huge amount daily just to maintain their “functional alcoholism”.  Depending on where you live; the facts change and opinions on “safe” doses or “units” differ wildly.

In people who have breathing difficulties, alcohol can also be a factor that can reduce breathing function. In people who have an alcohol overuse issue, risk of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome increases by 2-4 fold.  People who consume large amounts of alcohol daily are also have increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses and infections.

Many people with dysfunctional breathing like asthma or sleep apnoea are not warned that drinking alcohol can trigger symptoms.

But what we are not understanding is HOW even small amounts of alcohol can affect health in more ways than we realize.

Alcohol is well known for causing liver issues and insulin problems, gout, depression and social issues – but a lesser known effect is it’s ability to reduce how we process oxygen in our lungs.  Alcoholic Lung Injury is a very real condition, and does suggest that drinking alcohol could even be detrimental for many people with lung issues.

We know about the dangers of alcohol and liver damage, but most of us are completely unaware that Alcohol can also damage lungs. 

According to a paper published in Alcohol Research Current Reviews in 2008:   “In addition to its well-known association with lung infection (i.e., pneumonia); alcohol abuse now is recognized as an independent factor that increases by three- to four-fold the incidence of the acute respiratory distress syndrome, a severe form of acute lung injury with a mortality rate of 40 to 50 percent”

While most of us grew up thinking alcohol is processed only by the liver, it may be a surprise to learn that alcohol is also metabolized in the lungs. It seems illogical – until we get caught in a roadblock that is. Measuring the un-metabolized alcohol in your exhaled breath is an accurate way for the traffic authorities to tell exactly how much you have been drinking.    Although we don’t realize it, our lungs process and release toxins from our bodies constantly.  That is also why you can smell a drinker from their exhaled breath…because excess alcohol is expelled from the lungs via breathing. Now alcohol is understood as being a chemical cause of imbalance and lung injury.  “ In the past decade, clinical and experimental evidence has emerged that implicates a chronic damaging chemical imbalance in the cell (i.e., oxidative stress) and consequent cellular dysfunction within the layer of tissue lining the airway (i.e., airway epithelium) as well as pathogen-ingesting white blood cells (i.e., macrophages) in the airway (Bechara et al. 2005; Brown et al. 2001a,b; Holguin et al. 1998; Kamat et al. 2005).

Moreover, now it is recognized that these disruptions in lung function can occur even in young and otherwise healthy individuals long before they develop clinically apparent signs of alcoholic liver disease and/or other end-stage manifestations of longstanding alcohol abuse (Moss et al. 2000). Based on these recent studies, the concept of the alcoholic lung is emerging, which is characterized by severe oxidative stress that alone may not cause detectable lung impairment but may predispose those who are dependent on or abuse alcohol to severe lung injury if they are unfortunate enough to suffer serious trauma or other acute illnesses.”

Alcohol is possibly responsible for negative effects on sensitive airways. According to a paper published in the Journal of Anaesthesia and Critical Care in 2018, the mechanisms of injury resulting from overuse can now be traced.  Alcohol abuse can result in airway remodelling or scarring due to several factors.  (Scar tissue is different to healthy tissue, and scarred lungs cannot take up oxygen as effectively).

Alcohol also causes depletion of  glutathione in the body, which can also lead to airway remodelling.   Glutathione is very important for lung health, as it contributes to lung surfactant which is vital for maintaining healthy disease free lungs, ensures correct epithelial cell permeability and assists to prevent negative changes to circulation in the lungs. These changes are enough to increase risk of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome and negatively influence oxygen delivery to the cells.

Prof KP Buteyko said that alcohol was dangerous to health and recommended abstinence from alcoholic drinks.  He clearly understood about the negative effects on sensitive lungs and said that alcohol was a serious trigger that is best avoided. Despite the media claims that a drink a day keeps the doctor away, studies show that NO alcohol is better.


©Buteyko South Africa


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