Metabolic acidosis in the alcoholic: a pathophysiologic approach

Metabolism. 1983 Mar;32(3):308-15. doi: 10.1016/0026-0495(83)90197-x.


The purpose of this paper is to review the acid-base abnormalities in patients presenting with metabolic acidosis due to acute ethanol ingestion and to review the theoretical constraints on ethanol metabolism in the liver. Alcohol-induced acidosis is a mixed acid-base disturbance. Metabolic acidosis is due to lactic acidosis, ketoacidosis and acetic acidosis but the degree of each varies from patient to patient. Metabolic alkalosis is frequently present due to ethanol-induced vomiting. However, it could be overlooked because of an indirect loss of sodium bicarbonate (as sodium B-hydroxybutyrate in the urine). Nevertheless, the accompanying reduction in ECF volume may play an important role in the pathogenesis of alcoholic acidosis because it could lead to a relative insulin deficiency. Treatment of alcohol acidosis should include sodium, chloride, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and thiamine replacements along with attention to concomitant clinical problems. Unless hypoglycemia is present, glucose need not be given immediately. We feel that insulin should be withheld unless life-threatening acidemia is present or expected. Lastly, alcohol need not be detected on admission to make the diagnosis of this metabolic disturbance. However, when present, it could contribute directly to the lactic, acetic and B-hydroxybutyric acidoses. With respect to the theoretical constraints on ethanol metabolism, it appears that "overproduction" of NADH in the liver is best averted by converting ethanol to B-hydroxybutyric acid.

MeSH terms

  • Acetates / biosynthesis
  • Acid-Base Equilibrium*
  • Acidosis / etiology*
  • Adenosine Triphosphate / metabolism
  • Alcoholism / metabolism*
  • Ethanol / metabolism
  • Glucose / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lactates / metabolism
  • Lactic Acid
  • Liver / metabolism


  • Acetates
  • Lactates
  • Lactic Acid
  • Ethanol
  • Adenosine Triphosphate
  • Glucose