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What Is Lactic Acid?

What Do Lions Teach About Lactic Acid and Limbic Breathing?

Reproduced from What Do Lions Know About Stress? (1996)

Majid Ali, M.D.

"What do lions know about lactic acid?" Choua asked me during a safari trip in Kenya .

"I thought we were through with chemistry," I replied.

"Lactic acid is the guardian angel molecule for antelopes," he murmured.

"I thought you asked me about lions and lactic acid. Are we on to antelopes now? Tell me, what makes lactic acid a guardian angel molecule for antelopes?"

"Lactic acid is a guardian angel molecule for lions," he mumbled.

"Will you make up your mind?" I asked, perplexed, "Are you talking about lions or antelopes?"

"It's the same thing, isn't it?" he grinned.

"Lions are not antelopes, nor antelopes lions," I countered. "Is lactic acid a guardian molecule for lions or for antelopes?"

"For both," he replied calmly. "It saves antelopes from lions and lions from themselves."

"Saves lions from lions?" I asked, irked by his cryptic words. "What do you mean it saves lions from lions?"

"Just as it saves antelopes from lions."

"Speak plainly, will you? How does lactic acid save antelopes from lions and lions from themselves?"

"It's simple," he grinned. "Think about it. What does lactic acid do in muscles?"

Lactic acid is an interesting molecule of human energy pathways. It is produced from its precursor, pyruvic acid, during the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats and proteins. It is a cul-de-sac molecule—once produced in tissues, it cannot be metabolized further.

All food substances are metabolized to release chemical bond energy contained in them for various body functions. After initial steps in their breakdown are completed, partially digested fat, protein and carbohydrate molecules enter a metabolic cycle called Krebs cycle. Next, the enzymes of this cycle break down those food molecules into pyruvic acid, and finally into water and carbon dioxide.

At rest in health, sufficient oxygen is available to completely break down pyruvic acid. Under these conditions, pyruvic acid is anaerobically (without oxygen) converted into lactic acid, only in minute quantities. Whatever amounts of lactic acid are so produced eventually get converted back into pyruvic acid, then broken down further into water and carbon dioxide.

In many states sufficient oxygen is not available for complete metabolism of food molecules in Krebs cycle. The metabolic steps are then arrested at the level of pyruvic acid. Some of the excess pyruvic acid so produced is turned into lactic acid that accumulates into tissues, producing a condition called lactic acidosis. Acidosis, of course, is a condition of excess acidity that is detrimental to many biologic processes of the body. Specifically, it inhibits many essential energy and detoxification enzyme systems.

When a sprinter sprints, muscle tissue burns sugar rapidly to release the required energy for the sprint. When oxygen in tissues has been used up, pyruvic acid cannot be broken down further, and instead is converted into lactic acid. Excess lactic acid, in turn, shuts off energy and detoxification, forcing the sprinter to break his sprint. Thus, lactic acid may be considered a limiting factor in intense physical activity.

But, why did Choua bring the subject of lactic acid in a discussion about stress, I wondered? I looked at him for clues. He was looking at the distant horizon, deeply absorbed in his thoughts.

"How does lactic acid save an antelope from a lion?" I pulled Choua out of his reverie.

"Lions have everything going for them, antelopes nothing—except for lactic acid in the lions' muscles," he replied without turning to face me.

"Ah, I get it now. Lactic acid is a fatigue molecule. Its accumulation in the lion's muscles turns off the energy enzymes in those muscles."

"Yes," Choua continued. "The mitochondria—those cellular powerhouses—in lions' muscle cells need oxygen to keep humming. Why do you think lions stop midway in the hunts so often?" he grimaced.

"Because lactic acid build-up inactivates energy enzymes in the lion's legs and stops the lion dead in his ballistic charge. The poor antelope has a chance to escape. Right?" I asked.

"Right," Choua replied.

"Lactic acid accumulation—lactic acid debt, as it is called, switches off oxidative enzymes that oxidize foods for release of energy—keep the oxidative enzymes of Krebs's energy cycle humming," I elaborated.

"Right!" Choua's eyes lit up. "That's what happens in the lion muscle cells. Wouldn't it be nice if things were that simple for humans?" he murmured, raised his eyebrows, then turned his gaze at the distant hills.

In physiology class I learned that the human body spends considerable energy to maintain a state of slight alkalinity of blood and fluid that bathes cells at all times. Thus, accumulation of excess lactic acid first exhausts the acid-alkali buffering capacity of the body, then makes it difficult for the body to maintain its normal alkaline state. Since all enzymes (catalysts) of the energy, detoxification and antioxidant systems of the body require an alkaline state for optimal function, lactic acidosis impairs all such functions.

Oxygen-starved cells produce lactic acid in large quantities—the state of acidosis so caused is a harbinger of some life-threatening events. When I prepared for my examination to receive the diploma of the fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in England, lactic acid was a favorite molecule of the examiners. Surgeons are concerned about lactic acidosis because it can trigger irregular heart rhythm, which, unless reversed expediently, can lead to cardiac arrest and death on operating tables.

Similar risks are encountered in congestive heart failure. The failing heart fails to pump enough blood—and oxygen—to tissues for oxidative metabolism. Tissues struggle to function in a nonoxygen-utilizing mode, or anaerobic metabolism—the opposite of the commonly known aerobic type of activity. Such metabolic insufficiency is diagnosed in clinical practice by measuring blood levels of lactic acid or lactate-pyruvate ratio. The higher the values in these tests, the more severe the heart failure.

I learned all those things about lactic acid in medical school, and again during my surgical and pathology training. But I found little use of such knowledge once I began my pathology and clinical work. With time, lactic acid faded away from my working knowledge of clinical medicine. And then, in the Serengeti Plains, Choua fired all those questions at me. Why? I wondered. And what did he mean by things about lactic acid not being as simple for humans as they are for lions?

"Why aren't these things about lactic acid as simple for humans as they are for lions?" I finally asked Choua.

"Because you humans are humans, and lions are lions. That's why?" he glowered. "You can't let go. You brood and sulk, and keep the oxidative coals simmering even when the metabolic digestive fires are out. The cortical monkey simply doesn't let up."

"What does the cortical monkey have to do with lactic acid?" I asked, baffled.

"What would happen if you inject lactic acid into the veins of these lions?" he asked, without acknowledging my question.

"I am not about to try that," I replied quickly. "Why don't you try that? Tell me, what will happen anyway?"

"Some lions will suffer from anxiety attacks," he continued evenly.

"Really?" I was taken aback. "Has that ever been done, or are you just making it up?"

Choua grinned but didn't say anything. I didn't follow through. We rode in silence for a while.

"Exercise requires energy," Choua spoke finally. "Where does such energy come from?"

"From oxidative metabolism of food substances that releases the chemical bond energy," I replied. "Didn't we just cover that subject?"

"So, the increased demands of tissues for energy during exercise can only be met by increased oxidative activity in them? In other words, metabolically tissue in exercise comes under greater oxidative stress. Right?" He asked.

"Right," I replied, not knowing where that might lead me.

"You would expect that many toxic oxidative species—free radicals, as you call them in common language—will be produced in much larger quantities during exercise."

"I agree."

"What kinds of toxic oxidative species might those be?"

"Hydrogen peroxide, superoxide radicals, singlet oxygen, hydroperoxides, hydroxyl radicals, and aldehyde, such as malonaldehyde," I named some commonly known oxidants.

"How does the body cope with such toxic molecules?" he asked.

"By neutralizing them with antioxidants," I replied.

"What would happen if there were an excesses of lactic acid in tissues when there were also excess of toxic oxidative species in them?"

"The body's antioxidant systems will be overwhelmed. Indeed, that's the reason I recommend the use of antioxidants, such as vitamin E, C and pycnogenol for my patients who engage in endurance training."

"Now, tell me, what will happen if you inject lactic acid into lions?"

"I don't know."

"Didn't you cite the lactic acid study of Pitts and McLure in The Cortical Monkey and Healing?"

"The one published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967?"


"But, Choua, that wasn't about injecting lactic acid into lions' veins. It was about people who suffered from anxiety."

"What happened to anxiety sufferers when they were injected with lactic acid?" he asked.

"About one half of the subjects with anxiety developed acute anxiety reactions, while one out of five of volunteers who served as control subjects also suffered similar symptoms," I replied, then asked, "Are you saying injections of lactic acid can cause anxiety reactions in lions as well?"

"Yeah. Some lions will suffer anxiety attacks just as some people do."

"You're just guessing, aren't you?" I expressed doubt.

"Lactic acid doesn't differentiate between the oxidative energy enzymes of humans and lions. If there are differences between the lactic biochemistry of humans and lions, they are quantitative, not qualitative."

"There must be species differences," I countered.

"When enough lactic acid accumulates in the tissues, its effects are the same," he went on, ignoring my objection. "Lions, of course, may express their anxiety somewhat differently." "Do lions suffer anxiety attacks the way my patients do?" I asked. "Do they also develop sweating, jitteryness, hyperventilation and heart palpitations?"

"They would if they carried cortical monkeys on their backs as you do," Choua snapped.

"Okay, let's agree that lactic acid plays the same role in lions as it does in humans. So what?"

"Lions are straight shooters. Their charge is ballistic in speed. Once begun, it has no strategy. A lions' prey can often outrun him. If the prey escapes the charge, a lion stops but doesn't dwell on his failure. When a lion breaks his sprint, it soon settles down. His lactic acid-producing chemistry returns rapidly to a pyruvic-burning state. And..."

"And the accumulated lactic acid is converted back into pyruvic acid, then pulled back into Krebs's oxidative cycle and oxidized," I completed his sentence.

"Right. When the opportunity arises again, the lion strikes again, fresh and without any lactic acid debt. Lions don't sulk the way people do. You know how it is with humans, don't you?"

"When humans fail, they brood and sulk and..."

"The cortical monkey doesn't let up, does it?" he interrupted me. "It loves to recycle misery. And when that's not enough, it pre-cycles feared, future misery. Those are your words, right?"

"Right," I replied, irritated.

"The monkey keeps the blood and tissue lactic acid levels raised—tightening muscles everywhere in the body and raising blood pressure."

"Do lions suffer from high blood pressure?" I asked.

"Who knows?" he shrugged, then continued, "But the cortical monkey stays revved up, keeping arteries clamped, hands and feet cold."

Bricks in the Neck

"How often do you see patients with stiff necks?" Choua asked.

"That's not uncommon at all," I replied. "Why do you ask?"

"Sometimes their neck and shoulder muscles are hard like bricks."


"Where do those bricks come from?"

"Obviously what makes neck and shoulder tissues hard are spastic muscles. Why do you ask?"

"What causes a muscle spasm?" he pressed.

"Muscles go into spasm when they are injured," I offered the standard answer.

"More often than that muscles go into spasm to protect the injured ligaments and tendons that lie beneath them, don't they?" he asked.

"Well, that's true." As usual Choua was closer to the truth than I. "So?" I asked, a bit flustered.

"Why don't injured ligaments and tendons heal as fast as other soft tissues?"

"Because those tissues are not rich in blood supply."

"Right! What else?"

"Spastic muscles that protect injured ligaments make things worse."


"Spastic muscle clamp down on the injured ligaments and further reduce their limited blood supply."

"Why don't the spastic muscles relax? What is the biochemical explanation for that?" he went on.

"Spastic muscles produce excess lactic acid, and increased acidity of the spastic muscles further irritates the muscles, perpetuating the muscle spasm."

"Lactic acid, again, eh?" he grinned, then looked away.

Cancer Cell: an Oxygen Hater

"How does a cancer cell differ from a noncancerous cell?" Choua asked.

"That's a schizophrenic flight of ideas, isn't it?" I chided. "What does lactic acid accumulation in spastic muscles have to do with cancer cells?"

"How does a cancer cell differ from a noncancerous cell?" he repeated.

"A cancer cell continues to multiply. Its multiplication serves no useful function, but robs healthy cells of their nutrition," I answered.

"How does it differ from a healthy cell in its energy utilization patterns?"

"Oh, that!" I saw where he was leading me. "A cancer cell is an oxyphobe—it abhors oxygen."

"It does its dirty work without oxygen," he added.

"Yes," I agreed, then continued, "Metabolism in a cancer cell is anaerobic."

"What are the chemical consequences of that?"

"A cancer cell accumulates lactic acid."

"Lactic acid, again," he grinned broadly.

Lions like the Limbic, Not Lactic

"Humans sulk, lions don't," Choua continued.

"Lions don't have much to sulk about," I replied.

"Humans carry bricks in their shoulders, lions don't."

"Lions don't have to report to work on time, nor do they have to pay real estate taxes."

"Quite right," he smiled, then added, "Humans love to recycle past misery, lions don't."

"How do we know lions don't remember past misery?" I asked.

"Humans thrive on precycling feared future pain," he continued, without answering my question.

"I don't think lions have any feared future pain," I countered.

"Humans nurse their resentments for a long time, not lions."

"How do you know?" I asked.

"When lion-hearted lionesses return to their chicken-hearted sisters after fighting off invaders, they're limbic about the whole thing. You would think they would hold grudges, but they don't."

"What do you make of that?" I asked.

"There is no lactic acidosis in their limbs," he grinned, baring his teeth.

"How do you know?" I asked, a trifle annoyed.

"Nor any bricks in their haunches."

"Are you saying holding grudges causes lactic acidosis in shoulder muscles?"

"How else do you think folks bake those bricks in their neck and shoulder muscles?" he laughed out loud and walked away.

What Do Lions Teach Us About the Anxiety-Lactic Acid Connection?

In 1967, The New England Journal of Medicine published a landmark paper linking lactic acid to anxiety attacks and neurosis. The authors (Drs. Pitts and McLure) administered lactic acid and salt solution intravenously to a group of patients with anxiety neurosis and to a control group. Lactic acid induced an anxiety attack in about half of the patients with neurosis, and interestingly in 20 % of the control subjects. They interrogated these normal control subjects and found out that many of them had histories of previous problems. Salt solution used as a control did not cause significant anxiety in either group.

So, what do lions teach us about the anxiety-lactic acid connection? We can our muscles loose, let them breathe freely, and save them from lactic acid burn out. Or we can keep them tight, acidic, oxygen starved, and tired. Lions say" Breathe Limbically and keep lactic acid low.

Near 80% Reduction in Blood Lactic Acid With Limbic Breathing


For detailed information about the above experiment, which I performed on myself in 1990, see  Reproduced From The Cortical Monkey and Healing (1991)



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