After alcohol consumption, the liver begins quickly converting the ethanol alcohol into acetate, a chemical most commonly found in vinegar. The acetate then circulates throughout the body in blood.
Ethanol consumption can cause rapid drops in blood glucose levels, and since glucose (sugar) is the body's main source of cellular energy, acetate can compensate for low glucose by providing replacement fuel for the brain and other organs.
A team of researchers led by Lihong Jiang of Yale University found that long-term, heavy drinking increases the metabolism and speed of acetate uptake, which means that alcoholics comes to rely on acetate for energy after prolonged alcohol use. Without the acetate, the body goes into alcohol withdrawal.
Jiang and his colleagues used a brain imaging technique called magnetic resonance spectroscopy to track acetate uptake and metabolism in the brains of heavy drinkers who consumed at least eight alcohol drinks per week, and compared them to light drinkers who had less than two drinks per week.
They found that heavy drinkers had twice as much circulating acetate, showing that acetate transport is much faster after prolonged heavy drinking.
The study has been published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.