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April – National Alcohol Awareness Month Feature

The Alcohol Enzyme and How it Works

Nearly 90,000 people die every year from alcohol-related deaths. It’s most certainly not a pleasant truth. Most of us don’t understand how our bodies even metabolize alcohol, what is happening on a cellular level, even hours after you fall asleep. Well, there’s a special enzyme that is literally working to save your life. Alcohol dehydrogenase does not get the thanks it deserves (ADH). This amazing enzyme
ceaselessly battles the poisons from the alcohol we consume. Hangovers would be far worse (imagine?) without ADH if we survived the night with an overload of toxins in the system. ADH is our primary defense against alcohol (technically a ‘toxic’ molecule), which compromises the function of our nervous system. The high levels of alcohol dehydrogenase in our liver and stomach detoxify about one standard drink per hour. ADH transforms ethanol into a toxic compound called acetaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Carcinogens are very literally “cancer-causing” compounds and
therefore heavy drinkers are more prone and susceptible to cancer of the brain, heart, liver & pancreas.

Our bodies create at least nine different forms of alcohol dehydrogenase, each with slightly different properties. Most of these are found primarily in the liver, some in the lining of the stomach. Ethanol is not the only target of these enzymes; they also make important modifications to steroids and fatty acids. Currently, there is no ability to increase the amount of these very targeted enzymes.

Alcohol affects some people differently from others. If a woman and a man of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol under the exact same circumstances, the woman will on average have a much higher blood alcohol content (BAC) than the man. The reason for this is that women have much less ADH in their stomachs than men do.

East Asians and American Indians produce a different form of acetaldehyde dehydrogenase called ADH2, which is far less, efficient at breaking down acetaldehyde. In fact, ADH2 is only about 8% as efficient. The end result is that some with the up with large amounts of acetaldehyde in their bodies whenever they drink alcohol. This causes their faces to flush and leads to headaches, nausea, vomiting, heart palpitations, and other extreme physical unpleasantness. This reaction to alcohol is sometimes referred to as the “flush syndrome”. There is also an extremely high alcohol sensitivity in the Japanese population. Quantitative studies reveal that approximately 85% of Japanese carry the atypical ADH2. This fascinating enzyme is the subject of continuous research and studies to better understand the reason for these genetic variations. This tiny enzyme is mist certainly worthy of big praise.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. Understanding how our bodies process alcohol can make all the difference between moderation and abuse. Educating yourself and your loved ones can be the greatest gift you can give as well. If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol-related issues, please visit: www.niaaa.nih.gov

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