Ethanol Metabolism

Ethanol is a chemical compound that is produced in small amounts within the small intestine Small intestine The small intestine is the longest part of the GI tract, extending from the pyloric orifice of the stomach to the ileocecal junction. The small intestine is the major organ responsible for chemical digestion and absorption of nutrients. It is divided into 3 segments: the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. Small Intestine and is also ingested from alcoholic drinks. Ethanol’s digestion involves a complex catabolic pathway that mainly takes place in the liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver. Ethanol is turned into acetaldehyde, then to acetate, and finally into acetyl-CoA, which becomes a substrate for the citric acid cycle Citric acid cycle The citric acid cycle, also known as the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle or the Krebs cycle, is a cyclic set of reactions that occurs in the mitochondrial matrix. The TCA cycle is the continuation of any metabolic pathway that produces pyruvate, which is converted into its main substrate, acetyl-CoA. Citric Acid Cycle and produces energy. Excessive ethanol intake can have pathologic metabolic consequences including alcoholism, liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver disease, and cancer.

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Editorial responsibility: Stanley Oiseth, Lindsay Jones, Evelin Maza

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Overview

Chemical characteristics

  • Ethanol is a 2-carbon alcohol.
  • Soluble in aqueous and lipid environments due to its small size (short carbon chain) and hydroxyl group (-OH)
  • Molecular formula: CH3CH2OH
  • Colorless, volatile liquid with a slight odor
Structure of ethanol

Structure of the ethanol molecule

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Production and absorption

  • Ethanol is produced by the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in minimal amounts through the fermentation of intestinal contents (approximately 3 g of ethanol/day).
  • Alcohol is also produced minimally by several metabolic pathways, including:
    • Fatty acid synthesis
    • Glycerolipid metabolism
    • Bile acid biosynthesis pathways 
  • Also enters the body via alcohol consumption:
    1. Alcohol is consumed → enters the stomach Stomach The stomach is a muscular sac in the upper left portion of the abdomen that plays a critical role in digestion. The stomach develops from the foregut and connects the esophagus with the duodenum. Structurally, the stomach is C-shaped and forms a greater and lesser curvature and is divided grossly into regions: the cardia, fundus, body, and pylorus. Stomach and small intestine Small intestine The small intestine is the longest part of the GI tract, extending from the pyloric orifice of the stomach to the ileocecal junction. The small intestine is the major organ responsible for chemical digestion and absorption of nutrients. It is divided into 3 segments: the duodenum, the jejunum, and the ileum. Small Intestine → absorbed into the bloodstream (due to solubility in water)
    2. Spreads into intracellular and extracellular spaces, including fat tissue
      • Women will typically have a higher blood alcohol level than men due to a higher percentage of body fat
    3. Via the portal system → reaches the liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver, responsible for most of its metabolism

Ethanol Metabolism

The primary site of alcohol catabolism is the liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver.

  1. Ethanolacetaldehyde
    • Occurs in the cytoplasm
    • Hepatic enzyme: alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) 
      • Responsible for the bulk of ethanol breakdown into acetaldehyde
      • Found in the cytosol
      • Requires NAD+
    • Hepatic cytochrome: P450 enzyme CYP2E1 (also called microsomal ethanol oxidizing system (MEOS))
      • Induced during chronic alcohol consumption
      • Found in microsomes
      • Requires nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH)
      • Releases reactive oxygen species → alcoholic liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver damage
    • Fatty acid ethyl ester (FAEE) synthase 
      • Catalyzes the reversible reaction of long-chain fatty acyl ethyl ester and H2O ↔ long-chain fatty acids and ethanol
      • Found in the liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver and pancreas Pancreas The pancreas lies mostly posterior to the stomach and extends across the posterior abdominal wall from the duodenum on the right to the spleen on the left. This organ has both exocrine and endocrine tissue. Pancreas
  2. Acetaldehyde → acetate: catalyzed by the acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) enzyme
    • ALDH is found mainly in hepatic mitochondria, and less in the cytosol.
    • Requires NAD+
  3. Acetate → acetyl-CoA: catalyzed by ATP–dependent acetyl-CoA synthetase (ACS)
    • ACS is found in mitochondria and cytosol.
    • Requires coenzyme A and ATP 
  4. Acetyl-CoA → several metabolic pathways:
    • Citric acid cycle
    • Fatty acid synthesis
    • Ketone body synthesis or ketogenesis
    • Mevalonate pathway 
    • Acetylcholine synthesis
    • Melatonin synthesis
Schematic diagram of the steps of ethanol metabolism

Schematic diagram of the steps of ethanol metabolism

Image by Lecturio.

Medications that affect ethanol metabolism

Many common medications can inhibit enzymes Enzymes Enzymes are complex protein biocatalysts that accelerate chemical reactions without being consumed by them. Due to the body's constant metabolic needs, the absence of enzymes would make life unsustainable, as reactions would occur too slowly without these molecules. Basics of Enzymes involved in the metabolism of ethanol, leading to the accumulation of toxic products (e.g., acetaldehyde):

Medication Inhibited enzyme Effects
Fomepizole Alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH)
  • Prevents the formation of acetaldehyde
  • Used as treatment for methanol or ethylene glycol poisoning
Disulfiram Acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) Causes accumulation of acetaldehyde → hangover symptoms
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Flushing
    • Dizziness
    • Headache
    • Abdominal discomfort
  • Used as a treatment for alcohol use disorder Alcohol use disorder Alcohol is one of the most commonly used addictive substances in the world. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is defined as pathologic consumption of alcohol leading to impaired daily functioning. Acute alcohol intoxication presents with impairment in speech and motor functions and can be managed in most cases with supportive care. Alcohol Use Disorder
  • Calcium carbimide
  • Hydrogen cyanamide
  • Cephalosporins Cephalosporins Cephalosporins are a group of bactericidal beta-lactam antibiotics (similar to penicillins) that exert their effects by preventing bacteria from producing their cell walls, ultimately leading to cell death. Cephalosporins are categorized by generation and all drug names begin with "cef-" or "ceph-." Cephalosporins
  • Chloramphenicol Chloramphenicol Chloramphenicol, the only clinically relevant drug in the amphenicol class, is a potent inhibitor of bacterial protein synthesis by binding to the 50S ribosomal subunit and preventing peptide bond formation. Chloramphenicol is a broad-spectrum antibiotic with wide distribution; however, due to its toxicity, its use is limited to severe infections. Chloramphenicol
  • Ketoconazole
  • Metronidazole
  • Nitrates Nitrates Nitrates are a class of medications that cause systemic vasodilation (veins > arteries) by smooth muscle relaxation. Nitrates are primarily indicated for the treatment of angina, where preferential venodilation causes pooling of blood, decreased preload, and ultimately decreased myocardial O2 demand. Nitrates
  • Nitroimidazoles Nitroimidazoles Nitroimidazoles are prodrugs composed of an imidazole ring with an attached nitro group. Nitroimidazoles are reduced within susceptible microorganisms, leading to free radical formation and disruption of DNA integrity. Nitroimidazoles
  • Sulfonamide Sulfonamide The sulfonamides are a class of antimicrobial drugs inhibiting folic acid synthesize in pathogens. The prototypical drug in the class is sulfamethoxazole. Although not technically sulfonamides, trimethoprim, dapsone, and pyrimethamine are also important antimicrobial agents inhibiting folic acid synthesis. The agents are often combined with sulfonamides, resulting in a synergistic effect. Sulfonamides and Trimethoprim
  • Causes a “disulfiram effect”
  • Used as a treatment for various illnesses (not alcohol use disorder Alcohol use disorder Alcohol is one of the most commonly used addictive substances in the world. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is defined as pathologic consumption of alcohol leading to impaired daily functioning. Acute alcohol intoxication presents with impairment in speech and motor functions and can be managed in most cases with supportive care. Alcohol Use Disorder)
  • Concomitant use of alcohol and these medications is not recommended

Excessive Ethanol Consumption

Excessive ethanol consumption, such as in alcohol use disorder Alcohol use disorder Alcohol is one of the most commonly used addictive substances in the world. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is defined as pathologic consumption of alcohol leading to impaired daily functioning. Acute alcohol intoxication presents with impairment in speech and motor functions and can be managed in most cases with supportive care. Alcohol Use Disorder, leads to saturation of the ethanol metabolism pathway and consequent accumulation of toxic metabolites, as well as alteration of other metabolic pathways.

  • Acetaldehyde levels exceed the capacity of alcohol dehydrogenase → acetaldehyde accumulation (toxic) → hangover symptoms
    • Alcohol-related flushing
    • Headaches
    • Nausea and/or vomiting
    • Increased heart rate
  • Increase in the NADH/NAD+ ratio → excess NADH 
    • Inhibits citric acid cycle Citric acid cycle The citric acid cycle, also known as the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle or the Krebs cycle, is a cyclic set of reactions that occurs in the mitochondrial matrix. The TCA cycle is the continuation of any metabolic pathway that produces pyruvate, which is converted into its main substrate, acetyl-CoA. Citric Acid Cycle + increased acetate conversion to acetyl-CoA → increase in acetyl-CoA → stimulates fatty acid synthesis + inhibits beta oxidation → fatty liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver disease
    • Stimulates glycolysis Glycolysis Glycolysis is a central metabolic pathway responsible for the breakdown of glucose and plays a vital role in generating free energy for the cell and metabolites for further oxidative degradation. Glucose primarily becomes available in the blood as a result of glycogen breakdown or from its synthesis from noncarbohydrate precursors (gluconeogenesis) and is imported into cells by specific transport proteins. Glycolysis + inhibits gluconeogenesis Gluconeogenesis Gluconeogenesis is the process of making glucose from noncarbohydrate precursors. This metabolic pathway is more than just a reversal of glycolysis. Gluconeogenesis provides the body with glucose not obtained from food, such as during a fasting period. The production of glucose is critical for organs and cells that cannot use fat for fuel. Gluconeogenesis severe hypoglycemia Hypoglycemia Hypoglycemia is an emergency condition defined as a serum glucose level ≤ 70 mg/dL (≤ 3.9 mmol/L) in diabetic patients. In nondiabetic patients, there is no specific or defined limit for normal serum glucose levels, and hypoglycemia is defined mainly by its clinical features. Hypoglycemia
    • Metabolic acidosis Metabolic acidosis The renal system is responsible for eliminating the daily load of non-volatile acids, which is approximately 70 millimoles per day. Metabolic acidosis occurs when there is an increase in the levels of new non-volatile acids (e.g., lactic acid), renal loss of HCO3-, or ingestion of toxic alcohols. Metabolic Acidosis:
      • Increased conversion of pyruvate into lactate → lactic acidosis
      • Increased acetyl-CoA → increased ketogenesis → ketoacidosis
Excessive ethanol consumption

Excessive ethanol consumption

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Clinical Relevance

The following conditions are associated with excessive ethanol consumption:

  • Alcohol use disorder: a level of alcohol consumption that exceeds the sociocultural standard. Marked by mental and physical addiction Addiction Substance use disorders are a significant cause of morbidity and mortality, especially among adolescents and young adults. A substance-related and addictive disorder is the continued use of a substance despite harmful consequences; these include significant impairment to one's health or relationships or failure to fulfill major responsibilities at work, school, or home because of substance use. Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders associated with an irresistible desire for the substance and drug tolerance that leads to increases in dosage and withdrawal symptoms during abstinence. 
  • Alcoholic liver disease Alcoholic Liver Disease Alcoholic liver disease is a spectrum of disorders ranging from fatty liver to cirrhosis secondary to chronic alcohol abuse. Excessive and prolonged consumption of alcohol results in impairment of the lipolysis pathway, causing inflammatory changes within the hepatocytes. Patients typically present during the hepatitis stage with jaundice, fever, and abdominal pain. Alcoholic Liver Disease: a range of progressive liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver conditions caused by chronic and excessive alcohol consumption. Typically involves inflammation Inflammation Inflammation is a complex set of responses to infection and injury involving leukocytes as the principal cellular mediators in the body's defense against pathogenic organisms. Inflammation is also seen as a response to tissue injury in the process of wound healing. The 5 cardinal signs of inflammation are pain, heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function. Inflammation and enlargement of the liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver and ends in cirrhosis Cirrhosis Cirrhosis is a late stage of hepatic parenchymal necrosis and scarring (fibrosis) most commonly due to hepatitis C infection and alcoholic liver disease. Patients may present with jaundice, ascites, and hepatosplenomegaly. Cirrhosis can also cause complications such as hepatic encephalopathy, portal hypertension, portal vein thrombosis, and hepatorenal syndrome. Cirrhosis. Symptoms include jaundice Jaundice Jaundice is the abnormal yellowing of the skin and/or sclera caused by the accumulation of bilirubin. Hyperbilirubinemia is caused by either an increase in bilirubin production or a decrease in the hepatic uptake, conjugation, or excretion of bilirubin. Jaundice (yellowing of skin Skin The skin, also referred to as the integumentary system, is the largest organ of the body. The skin is primarily composed of the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (deep layer). The epidermis is primarily composed of keratinocytes that undergo rapid turnover, while the dermis contains dense layers of connective tissue. Structure and Function of the Skin), intestinal bleeding, weakness, ascites Ascites Ascites is the pathologic accumulation of fluid within the peritoneal cavity that occurs due to an osmotic and/or hydrostatic pressure imbalance secondary to portal hypertension (cirrhosis, heart failure) or non-portal hypertension (hypoalbuminemia, malignancy, infection). Ascites (abdominal swelling), and weight loss. 
  • Fatty liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver disease: the accumulation of triglycerides and other fats in hepatocytes, which leads to microvesicular and macrovesicular fatty changes seen on liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver biopsy. Etiologies include alcoholic liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver disease, diet, and drug-induced changes.
  • Cirrhosis: a late-stage condition caused by chronic damage to the liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver, characterized by hepatic parenchymal necrosis, fibrosis of liver Liver The liver is the largest gland in the human body. The liver is found in the superior right quadrant of the abdomen and weighs approximately 1.5 kilograms. Its main functions are detoxification, metabolism, nutrient storage (e.g., iron and vitamins), synthesis of coagulation factors, formation of bile, filtration, and storage of blood. Liver tissues, and an inflammatory response to the underlying cause such as chronic alcoholism. Symptoms include itchy skin Skin The skin, also referred to as the integumentary system, is the largest organ of the body. The skin is primarily composed of the epidermis (outer layer) and dermis (deep layer). The epidermis is primarily composed of keratinocytes that undergo rapid turnover, while the dermis contains dense layers of connective tissue. Structure and Function of the Skin, jaundice Jaundice Jaundice is the abnormal yellowing of the skin and/or sclera caused by the accumulation of bilirubin. Hyperbilirubinemia is caused by either an increase in bilirubin production or a decrease in the hepatic uptake, conjugation, or excretion of bilirubin. Jaundice, ascites Ascites Ascites is the pathologic accumulation of fluid within the peritoneal cavity that occurs due to an osmotic and/or hydrostatic pressure imbalance secondary to portal hypertension (cirrhosis, heart failure) or non-portal hypertension (hypoalbuminemia, malignancy, infection). Ascites, and cancer. 
  • Hypoglycemia: an abnormally low level of glucose in the blood (< 70–110 mg/dL). Symptoms include sweating, trembling, dizziness, inability to concentrate, and nausea. Severe hypoglycemia Hypoglycemia Hypoglycemia is an emergency condition defined as a serum glucose level ≤ 70 mg/dL (≤ 3.9 mmol/L) in diabetic patients. In nondiabetic patients, there is no specific or defined limit for normal serum glucose levels, and hypoglycemia is defined mainly by its clinical features. Hypoglycemia can lead to confusion, convulsions, coma Coma Coma is defined as a deep state of unarousable unresponsiveness, characterized by a score of 3 points on the GCS. A comatose state can be caused by a multitude of conditions, making the precise epidemiology and prognosis of coma difficult to determine. Coma, and death.
  • Metabolic acidosis Metabolic acidosis The renal system is responsible for eliminating the daily load of non-volatile acids, which is approximately 70 millimoles per day. Metabolic acidosis occurs when there is an increase in the levels of new non-volatile acids (e.g., lactic acid), renal loss of HCO3-, or ingestion of toxic alcohols. Metabolic Acidosis or alcoholic ketoacidosis: a reduction in the concentration of bicarbonate ions (HCO3-) that results in a blood pH < 7.35. Can occur due to excess hydrogen ions or loss of bicarbonate. This leads to abnormal breathing, “fruity breath,” abdominal pain Pain Pain has accompanied humans since they first existed, first lamented as the curse of existence and later understood as an adaptive mechanism that ensures survival. Pain is the most common symptomatic complaint and the main reason why people seek medical care. Physiology of Pain, vomiting, and, possibly, death.

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