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Basic Pharmacology of Ethanol: Pharmacokinetics

Basic Pharmacology of Ethanol: Pharmacokinetics
Ethanol is a small water-soluble molecule that is absorbed rapidly from the gastrointestinal tract.



Ethanol is a small water-soluble molecule that is absorbed rapidly from the gastrointestinal tract. After ingestion of alcohol in the fasting state, peak blood alcohol concentrations are reached within 30 minutes. The presence of food in the stomach delays absorp-tion by slowing gastric emptying. Distribution is rapid, with tissue levels approximating the concentration in blood. The volume of distribution for ethanol approximates total body water (0.5–0.7 L/kg). For an equivalent oral dose of alcohol, women have a higher peak concentration than men, in part because women have a lower total body water content and in part because of differences in first-pass metabolism. In the central nervous system (CNS), the concentra-tion of ethanol rises quickly, since the brain receives a large pro-portion of total blood flow and ethanol readily crosses biologic membranes.

Over 90% of alcohol consumed is oxidized in the liver; much of the remainder is excreted through the lungs and in the urine. The excretion of a small but consistent proportion of alcohol by the lungs can be quantified with breath alcohol tests that serve as a basis for a legal definition of “driving under the influence” in many countries. At levels of ethanol usually achieved in blood, the rate of oxidation follows zero-order kinetics; that is, it is indepen-dent of time and concentration of the drug. The typical adult can metabolize 7–10 g (150–220 mmol) of alcohol per hour, the equivalent of approximately one “drink” [10 oz (300 mL) beer, 3.5 oz (105 mL) wine, or 1 oz (30 mL) distilled 80-proof spirits].

Two major pathways of alcohol metabolism to acetaldehyde have been identified (Figure 23–1). Acetaldehyde is then oxidized to acetate by a third metabolic process.

A. Alcohol Dehydrogenase Pathway

The primary pathway for alcohol metabolism involves alcohol dehy-drogenase (ADH), a family of cytosolic enzymes that catalyze the conversion of alcohol to acetaldehyde (Figure 23–1, left). These enzymes are located mainly in the liver, but small amounts are found in other organs such as the brain and stomach. There is considerable genetic variation in ADH enzymes, affecting the rate of ethanol metabolism and also appearing to alter vulnerability to alcohol-abuse disorders. For example, one ADH allele (the ADH1B*2 allele), which is associated with rapid conversion of ethanol to acet-aldehyde, has been found to be protective against alcohol dependence in several ethnic populations and especially East Asians.

Some metabolism of ethanol by ADH occurs in the stomach in men, but a smaller amount occurs in women, who appear to have lower levels of the gastric enzyme. This difference in gastric metabolism of alcohol in women probably contributes to the sex-related differences in blood alcohol concentrations noted above.

During conversion of ethanol by ADH to acetaldehyde, hydro-gen ion is transferred from ethanol to the cofactor nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) to form NADH. As a net result, alcohol oxidation generates an excess of reducing equivalents in the liver, chiefly as NADH. The excess NADH production appears to contribute to the metabolic disorders that accompany chronic alcoholism and to both the lactic acidosis and hypoglyce-mia that frequently accompany acute alcohol poisoning.


B. Microsomal Ethanol-Oxidizing System (MEOS)

This enzyme system, also known as the mixed function oxidase system, uses NADPH as a cofactor in the metabolism of ethanol (Figure 23–1, right) and consists primarily of cytochrome P450 2E1, 1A2, and 3A4 .

During chronic alcohol consumption, MEOS activity is induced. As a result, chronic alcohol consumption results in sig-nificant increases not only in ethanol metabolism but also in the clearance of other drugs eliminated by the cytochrome P450s that constitute the MEOS system, and in the generation of the toxic byproducts of cytochrome P450 reactions (toxins, free radicals, H2O2).

C. Acetaldehyde Metabolism

Much of the acetaldehyde formed from alcohol is oxidized in the liver in a reaction catalyzed by mitochondrial NAD-dependent aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). The product of this reaction is acetate (Figure 23–1), which can be further metabolized to CO2 and water, or used to form acetyl-CoA Oxidation of acetaldehyde is inhibited by disulfiram, a drug that has been used to deter drinking by patients with alcohol dependence. When ethanol is consumed in the presence of disul-firam, acetaldehyde accumulates and causes an unpleasant reaction of facial flushing, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and headache. Several other drugs (eg, metronidazole, cefotetan, trimethoprim) inhibit ALDH and can cause a disulfiram-like reaction if com-bined with ethanol.

Some people, primarily of East Asian descent, have genetic deficiency in the activity of the mitochondrial form of ALDH, which is encoded by the ALDH2 gene. When these individuals drink alcohol, they develop high blood acetaldehyde concentra-tions and experience a noxious reaction similar to that seen with the combination of disulfiram and ethanol. This form of ALDH, with reduced activity, is strongly protective against alcohol-use disorders.

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