Moreover, chronic excessive alcohol use is the single most important cause of illness and death from liver disease (alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis) in the United States (1).


The three alcohol-induced liver conditions are fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis.

While I can find information about what is exactly a fatty liver or cirrhosis (liver scars), I can't find any information, what and how exactly things react inside of your body and what kind of damage alcohol does to your body.

From high school I still know, that alcohol is ethanol with the formula C2H6O, so my question is, simply put - what kinds of molecules from your own body react in which way with C2H6O?

I mean if I drink 1 litre water daily I certainly won't die any time soon, but if I do drink 1 litre alcohol daily I will die pretty soon. So what's the different reaction between H2O and C2H6O inside of your body?

  • 2
    Have you looked up how alcohol is metabolized and what the byproducts are? This site requires questions to demonstrate some degree of prior research, so looking that up and adding the results of your research to your question would greatly improve it.
    – Carey Gregory
    Jun 18, 2019 at 15:02
  • Indeed I did, however my question goes beyond the step of metabolism. Below, Jan answers [...]the greater amounts of acetaldehyde can damage the cells, mainly in the liver, pancreas, brain and heart. "Can damage the cells" - and this is my question - how exactly? I mean acetaldehyde isn't going with a sword at a liver cell and pokes it with it, right? So, what does technically/chemically happen between, for example, the acetaldehyde cell and a liver cell? Aug 19, 2019 at 12:46

1 Answer 1


On the chemical level, the toxicity of ethanol is mainly mediated by its breakdown product acetaldehyde. Alcohol is metabolized like this:

ethanol → acetaldehyde → acetate → acetylCoA → CO2 + water

When alcohol is drunk in small amounts, acetaldehyde is quickly metabolized to CO2 and water, but when drunk in large amounts, the greater amounts of acetaldehyde can damage the cells, mainly in the liver, pancreas, brain and heart.

Alcohol breakdown also results in the creation of reactive oxygen species, such as hydrogen peroxide, which together with acetaldehyde attack certain parts of the cells. The damaged cells attract neutrophils, which, in the attempt to clean the mess, can cause further damage (more details in the Journal of Hepatology and in this nice video).

Alcohol breakdown also results in an increase of NADH and depletion of NAD, which stimulates fatty acid synthesis.

On the tissue level, the stages of alcoholic liver damage are fat accumulation (steatosis), inflammation (hepatitis), cell death (necrosis) and conversion to fibrous tissue (fibrosis and cirrhosis). Chronic alcohol consumption also increases the risk for cancer of the mouth, throat, esophageus, colon, liver and breast (CDC. gov).

On the functional level, alcohol can kill you due to:

How exactly alcohol is damaging? (See Table 1 in this article)

  • Ethanol:
    • triggers triglyceride accumulation in the liver cells, which can result in cirrhosis
    • causes DNA damage of the stem cells, which can result in cancer
  • Acetaldehyde:
    • triggers inflammation, which can contribute to liver fibrosis
    • damages DNA
    • promotes oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which increases the risk of atherosclerosis
    • inactivates clotting factors, which increases the risk of bleeding

In conclusion, alcohol does not kill you by causing a chemical reaction with a certain molecule in the body (for example, like cyanide intoxication) but by promoting or inhibiting certain processes that can result in tissue damage.

  • 1
    I don't think this question can be answered without addressing alcohol metabolism and acetaldehyde.
    – Carey Gregory
    Jun 26, 2019 at 14:02
  • Withdrawn the accepted answer mark because my question was another one. Explained in my comment to the original question. Aug 19, 2019 at 12:47
  • @mohnstrudel, I added some more detailed mechanisms at the end and I made a conclusion. Alcohol does not kill you by causing a specific chemical reaction as you suggested in your original question but it promotes several mechanisms that can cause tissue damage.
    – Jan
    Aug 19, 2019 at 13:40

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