Brain and Body

Heavy Drinking Linked to a Higher Risk of Asthma

August 4, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

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This is the first study to unveil this association. 

While there are a slew of health problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption, researchers from Loyola Medicine and Loyola University Chicago have discovered a new potential health concern: an increased risk of asthma.

Publishing their new study in the journal Chest, the team found that heavy drinkers had less nitric oxide in their exhaled breath than adults who don’t drink, and nitric oxide helps protect against certain harmful bacteria.

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Nitric oxide, consisting of one nitrogen atom and one oxygen atom, is a colorless gas produced by the body during respiration. It plays an important role in killing the bacteria that cause respiratory infections, so lower levels of nitric oxide could lead to infections and inflamed airways.

"Alcohol appears to disrupt the healthy balance in the lung," lead author Majid Afshar, pulmonologist and assistant professor in the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine of Loyola University Chicago, said in a press release.

Using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Examination Survey (NHANES), the team studied over 12,000 adults who participated in the research between 2007 and 2012.

They defined heavy drinkers as women who, on average, had more than one drink per day, and men who had more than two, as well as those who binge drink at least once a month — four or more drinks on one occasion for women, and five or more for men.

In the sample they looked at, the researchers found that 26.9 percent of the participants were classified as excessive drinkers.

Next, they controlled for other factors that could have skewed the results, like asthma, smoking, diet, and demographics. This allowed the researchers to see that exhaled nitric oxide levels were lower in excessive drinkers than those who never drink, and there was a dose-response relationship — the more alcohol a heavy drinker consumed, the lower his or her levels of nitric oxide were.

The researchers have linked this finding to a higher risk of asthma because the amount of exhaled nitric oxide is a good indication of how well an asthma patient’s medication is working, they say.

“Lung doctors may need to take this into consideration," Dr. Afshar said.

"Accounting for alcohol use in the interpretation of [exhaled nitric oxide] levels should be an additional consideration, and further investigations are warranted to explore the complex interaction between alcohol and nitric oxide in the airways.”

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