Alcohol, oxidative stress and free radical damage

Proc Nutr Soc. 2006 Aug;65(3):278-90. doi: 10.1079/pns2006496.


The involvement of free radical mechanisms in the pathogenesis of alcoholic liver disease (ALD) is demonstrated by the detection of lipid peroxidation markers in the liver and the serum of patients with alcoholism, as well as by experiments in alcohol-feed rodents that show a relationship between alcohol-induced oxidative stress and the development of liver pathology. Ethanol-induced oxidative stress is the result of the combined impairment of antioxidant defences and the production of reactive oxygen species by the mitochondrial electron transport chain, the alcohol-inducible cytochrome P450 (CYP) 2E1 and activated phagocytes. Furthermore, hydroxyethyl free radicals (HER) are also generated during ethanol metabolism by CYP2E1. The mechanisms by which oxidative stress contributes to alcohol toxicity are still not completely understood. The available evidence indicates that, by favouring mitochondrial permeability transition, oxidative stress promotes hepatocyte necrosis and/or apoptosis and is implicated in the alcohol-induced sensitization of hepatocytes to the pro-apoptotic action of TNF-alpha. Moreover, oxidative mechanisms can contribute to liver fibrosis, by triggering the release of pro-fibrotic cytokines and collagen gene expression in hepatic stellate cells. Finally, the reactions of HER and lipid peroxidation products with hepatic proteins stimulate both humoral and cellular immune reactions and favour the breaking of self-tolerance during ALD. Thus, immune responses might represent the mechanism by which alcohol-induced oxidative stress contributes to the perpetuation of chronic hepatic inflammation. Together these observations provide a rationale for the possible clinical application of antioxidants in the therapy for ALD.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / therapeutic use
  • Free Radicals / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lipid Peroxidation* / physiology
  • Liver Diseases, Alcoholic / drug therapy
  • Liver Diseases, Alcoholic / immunology
  • Liver Diseases, Alcoholic / metabolism
  • Liver Diseases, Alcoholic / pathology*
  • Oxidative Stress*
  • Rats
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism*


  • Antioxidants
  • Free Radicals
  • Reactive Oxygen Species