Monday, January 2, 2012

What Your Body Does to Alcohol: Alcohol Dehydrogenase

The enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) is found only in the liver and converts alcohol (ethanol) into acetaldehyde, then acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH) converts acetaldehyde into acetic acid (commonly known as vinegar) which is harmless to the body.  
Some of you may have had a few drinks on new years eve...  And some may be wondering what happens to alcohol once it enters your body.  And how does your body get rid of that alcohol once it enters your system?  To be sure, alcohol is a toxin which amazingly most peoples bodies are relatively adapted to.  Though still, your body must get rid of the alcohol within your body, otherwise it might kill you.

With any alcoholic drink, the alcohol is rapidly absorbs into the blood stream through the stomach and small intestine.  Once in the blood, alcohol rapidly travels through out the body.  The most notable and immediate effects on the body take place in the central nervous system, the brain and spinal cord.  These organs are depressed, or slowed down, by alcohol and cause the rest of the body to also slow down.  This results in confusion and lack of coordination.  If these and other organs are exposed to too much alcohol for too long the alcohol will kill the cells.  The cells of the liver are the only cells in the body with any defense against alcohol poisoning.  Liver cells produce the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase which converts alcohol into acetaldehyde.  Acetaldehyde is then converted into acetic acid, more commonly known as vinegar, which is harmless to the body.  The body then can excrete the acetic acid out through urine.  The liver process about one half ounce of alcohol per hour, and drinking more alcohol faster then your liver can process it will result in inebriation, alcohol poisoning, and in large amounts even death.  The liver thus processes alcohol out of the blood for the entire body.  Again, alcohol is a poison to which your body is adapted to in small amounts, large amounts will kill you simply because the liver can't keep up.  Without the activity of alcohol dehydrogenase in your liver though, even small amounts of alcohol could kill a person.

Some people have livers that produce more alcohol dehydrogenase when compared to others.  People that produce more alcohol dehydrogenase in their livers are able to process more alcohol and therefore not get drunk as easily.  Some people produce extremely low levels of alcohol dehydrogenase and therefore are extremely susceptible to drunkenness and alcoholism.  Some ethic groups genetically do not produce much alcohol dehydrogenase and are therefore very prone to alcoholism.  Interestingly, several types of mushrooms from the genus Coprinopsis contain a chemical called coprine, which inhibits the livers ability to process alcohol.  Inky cap mushrooms are the most common species consumed within this genus.  Coprine inhibits acetaldehyde dehydrogenase and without this enzyme functioning, acetaldehyde can accumulate to toxic levels.

So hopefully you didn't test your livers ability to produce alcohol dehydrogenase too much this new years. And hopefully you are one to setting some good new years resolutions.  In my next post I will be discussing one of my resolutions.  And happy new years to you!

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