Published online Oct 28, 2014. doi: 10.3748/wjg.v20.i40.14652
Revised: May 7, 2014
Accepted: May 19, 2014
Published online: October 28, 2014
The harmful use of alcohol is a worldwide problem. It has been estimated that alcohol abuse represents the world’s third largest risk factor for disease and disability; it is a causal factor of 60 types of diseases and injuries and a concurrent cause of at least 200 others. Liver is the main organ responsible for metabolizing ethanol, thus it has been considered for long time the major victim of the harmful use of alcohol. Ethanol and its bioactive products, acetaldehyde-acetate, fatty acid ethanol esters, ethanol-protein adducts, have been regarded as hepatotoxins that directly and indirectly exert their toxic effect on the liver. A similar mechanism has been postulated for the alcohol-related pancreatic damage. Alcohol and its metabolites directly injure acinar cells and elicit stellate cells to produce and deposit extracellular matrix thus triggering the “necrosis-fibrosis” sequence that finally leads to atrophy and fibrosis, morphological hallmarks of alcoholic chronic pancreatitis. Even if less attention has been paid to the upper and lower gastrointestinal tract, ethanol produces harmful effects by inducing: (1) direct damaging of the mucosa of the esophagus and stomach; (2) modification of the sphincterial pressure and impairment of motility; and (3) alteration of gastric acid output. In the intestine, ethanol can damage the intestinal mucosa directly or indirectly by altering the resident microflora and impairing the mucosal immune system. Notably, disruption of the intestinal mucosal barrier of the small and large intestine contribute to liver damage. This review summarizes the most clinically relevant alcohol-related diseases of the digestive tract focusing on the pathogenic mechanisms by which ethanol damages liver, pancreas and gastrointestinal tract.
Core tip: Alcohol abuse represents the world’s third largest risk factor for disease and disability. According to a “hepatocentric” vision of the problem, liver has been considered for long time the main victim of the harmful use of alcohol. However, growing evidence suggests that alcoholic disease should not be considered limited to the liver but as a true systemic disease including damage to the digestive tract, the central and peripheral nervous systems, the heart and vascular system, the bone and skeletal muscle, the endocrine and immune systems and disruption of nutritional status and finally cancer.