Inhaling Alcohol: Same Buzz, Less Calories?

Love to party but worry about gaining a beer belly? Creative drinkers have found a way to imbibe without any of the pesky calories by pouring the liquor over dry ice or heating it until it steams and then inhaling the vapors. Sounds like a dieter's dream, right?

Not so fast. You may think you're saving your figure, but you're wreaking havoc on your body, experts say. Breathing in these fumes can have a myriad of unintended effects beyond those normally associated with drinking, including the following.

1. You get drunk faster. "When you inhale alcohol vapors, the alcohol completely bypasses the gastrointestinal tract—the stomach and liver—and thus reaches the brain much quicker," says Sheenie Armbardar, M.D., an adult psychiatrist in West Hollywood. That means speedier intoxication and impairment, plus it can have a more potent and negative effect on brain neurons. And brain cells aren’t good things to lose.

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2. It's harder on your body than drinking your alcohol. First, since the alcohol goes straight to the lungs, it can irritate your respiratory tract, Dr. Armbardar says. "From there the alcohol goes directly to the brain where it can cause central nervous system side effects such as nausea, headaches, dizziness, and, in some cases, unconsciousness or even coma." And since dry ice releases carbon dioxide, this method of “drinking” can also lead to hypercapnia (too much carbon dioxide and not enough oxygen in the blood), which can cause heart problems, suffocation, and even death, says Hector Diaz, M.D., an emergency medicine doctor at Genesis Medical Clinic in Temple Terrace, FL.

3. Your liver is gonna pay. It’s advised not to take alcohol on an empty stomach because “certain proteins, fats, and dense carbohydrates slow down the absorption process,” Dr. Diaz says. This is a good thing, as the lung and livers can’t handle high, pure doses of alcohol, he adds, and repeatedly inhaling alcohol over time could lead to liver damage and lung disease.

4. The health impacts are sexist. While this certainly isn’t smart for your male drinking buddies, you’ll be affected exponentially more, Dr. Diaz says. "Inhaling alcoholic vapors will produce worse and drastic results in females because women have about 50 percent less gastric alcohol dehydrogenase—an enzyme necessary to digest alcohol—less muscles and blood vessels, and more body fat than men."

5. It may mean you have a problem with alcohol. "While some young women may initially try inhaling alcohol on a whim or to try something new, they should be aware that this practice could lead to faster alcohol addiction and possible tolerance," Dr. Armbardar cautions.

Dr. Diaz says that unfortunately he's seen variations on this type of fad before in his practice as an ER doc, and it never ends well. "I’ve seen similar practices such as butt chugging (alcohol enema), vodka-soaked tampons, vodka eyeball shots, alcohol spraying or snorting, and alcohol vaporization (AWOL Machines), all of which are extremely risky."  

He advises avoiding "trendy" ways to drink alcohol or even to avoid drinking alcohol altogether if you feel like you need to resort to risky methods. You definitely won't have to worry about calories if you're abstaining!

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If you don’t want to give up the sauce, there are easy ways to watch your calories. "Cap your alcohol consumption to a certain number of drinks before going out," Dr. Armbardar says, adding that you can always choose lower-calorie drinks such as red or white wine, light beer, or spirits mixed with soda water.

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