The discussion on the so-called lactic acidosis and its causes have become increasingly attractive over the last couple of years as several biochemical explanations are challenged. A significant confusion persists on the various relationships between lactate, lactic acid and metabolic acidosis.
Most clinicians continue to refer to the traditional understanding of impaired tissue oxygenation causing increased lactate production, impaired lactate clearance and therefore resultant metabolic acidosis. Just recently we had a discussion on our ward round on this topic when a team member presented the most recent article of UpToDate online on the causes of lactic acidosis. The authors state that 'Lactic acidosis is the most common cause of metabolic acidosis in hospitalised patients' and that 'Lactic acidosis occurs when lactate production exceeds lactate clearance. The increase in lactate production is usually caused by impaired tissue oxygenation...'... finally suggesting that lactate is no good!
These statements support the classical understanding that:
- Hyperlactatemia is caused by tissue hypoxemia, and
- This in turn then leads to a metabolic acidosis called lactic acidosis
This biochemical understanding has persisted for decades, but there are some good reasons to vigorously challenge this traditional aspect on the 'bad' lactate. Lactate turns out to be by far more complex in its characteristics and functions, so I decided to try and make a short but comprehensive overview of this molecule.
What is lactate?
Lactate is a small organic molecule with the chemical formula CH3CH(OH)CO2H and structurally looks like on the image to the left. It is produced in the cytoplasm of human cells mainly by anaerobic glycolysis by the conversion of pyruvate to lactate by LDH. This chemical reaction results typically in a blood lactate to pyruvate ratio of about 10:1. And while lactate is produced, NAD+ also is incurred, and this actually can accept protons itself, so does not result in acidosis itself.
Lactate arises from the production of energy by consuming glycogen and glucose.