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Alcohol (beverage ethanol) distributes throughout the body, affecting almost all systems and altering nearly every neurochemical process in the brain. This drug is likely to exacerbate most medical problems, affect medications metabolized in the liver, and temporarily mimic many medical (e.g., diabetes) and psychiatric (e.g., depression) conditions. The lifetime risk for repetitive alcohol problems is almost 20% for men and 10% for women, regardless of a person’s education or income. Although low doses of alcohol might have healthful benefits, greater than three standard drinks per day enhances the risk for cancer and vascular disease, and alcohol use disorders decrease the life span by about 10 years. Unfortunately, most clinicians have had only limited training regarding alcohol-related disorders. This chapter presents a brief overview of clinically useful information about alcohol use and problems.


Ethanol blood levels are expressed as milligrams or grams of ethanol per deciliter (e.g., 100 mg/dL = 0.10 g/dL), with values of ~0.02 g/dL resulting from the ingestion of one typical drink. In round figures, a standard drink is 10–12 g, as seen in 340 mL (12 oz) of beer, 115 mL (4 oz) of nonfortified wine, and 43 mL (1.5 oz) (a shot) of 80-proof beverage (e.g., whisky); 0.5 L (1 pint) of 80-proof beverage contains ~160 g of ethanol (about 16 standard drinks), and 750 mL of wine contains ~60 g of ethanol. These beverages also have additional components (congeners) that affect the drink’s taste and might contribute to adverse effects on the body. Congeners include methanol, butanol, acetaldehyde, histamine, tannins, iron, and lead. Alcohol acutely decreases neuronal activity and has similar behavioral effects and cross-tolerance with other depressants, including benzodiazepines and barbiturates.

Alcohol is absorbed from mucous membranes of the mouth and esophagus (in small amounts), from the stomach and large bowel (in modest amounts), and from the proximal portion of the small intestine (the major site). The rate of absorption is increased by rapid gastric emptying (as seen with carbonation); by the absence of proteins, fats, or carbohydrates (which interfere with absorption); and by dilution to a modest percentage of ethanol (maximum at ~20% by volume).

Between 2% (at low blood alcohol concentrations) and 10% (at high blood alcohol concentrations) of ethanol is excreted directly through the lungs, urine, or sweat, but most is metabolized to acetaldehyde, primarily in the liver. The most important pathway occurs in the cell cytosol where alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) produces acetaldehyde, which is then rapidly destroyed by aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) in the cytosol and mitochondria (Fig. 63-1). A second pathway occurs in the microsomes of the smooth endoplasmic reticulum (the microsomal ethanol-oxidizing system, or MEOS) that is responsible for ≥10% of ethanol oxidation at high blood alcohol concentrations.


The metabolism of alcohol. CoA, coenzyme A; MEOS, microsomal ethanoloxidizing system.

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