Excessive Alcohol Consumption May Cause Fat Build-up in the Lungs

First Posted: Jun 30, 2014 06:58 PM EDT

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and pneumonia are more likely to occur among alcoholics because the lung's immune system is damaged by alcohol consumption. Thomas Jefferson University researchers discovered more on this topic.

The researchers conducted their experiments on rats, for which they exposed them to alcohol in order to examine the effects on their lungs. These rats were then compared to another group of rats who were fed a non-alcoholic diet with the same number of calories. The findings offer a possible new treatment for those who suffer from lung ailments as a result of alcohol consumption.

According to the study, the lungs contain a subpopulation of cells that produce surfactant - a complex naturally occurring substance made up of lipids and proteins - that eject a fatty secretion onto the inner lining of the lung. This keeps the lung's airways lubricated during breathing, but the researchers say that an accumulation of this fat could be detrimental.

This is similar to the way liver produces fat. When one consumes alcohol, the liver produces fat as a defense mechanism against toxicity. Frequent consumption of alcohol results a build-up of this fat, which causes scarring of the liver and could lead to more serious conditions. The lung's surfactant cells produce fat at a similar rate when exposed to excessive alcohol consumption.

"The fat accumulation in the lungs mimics the process that causes fat to build up and destroy the liver of alcoholics," said Ross Summer of THJ and lead researcher of the study, in this EurekAlert! news release. "It's [also] likely that the macrophages try to engulf the excess fat in order to protect the cells in the lung, but in doing so, they become less effective sentinels against infection and disease."

The rats who were exposed to the alcohol diet witnessed an increase in their production of triglycerides by 100% and free fatty acids by 300% compared to the rats who consumed no alcohol. As Dr. Summer mentioned, the lung's microphages experienced a fat build-up, affecting their role as the defender of bacteria and sick cells.

He believes this process is also present in humans, which is the subject of his current research that is testing the use and effectiveness of lipid-lowering drugs called fibrates, which would treat alcohol-related lung ailments.

You can read more about the Thomas Jefferson University study in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology.

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