Acute and chronic ethanol ingestion can alter both the pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics of other drugs. For psychotherapeutic drugs, modification of drug action by alcohol is much more important than kinetic interaction, such as ethanol induced drug metabolism. In contrast, the importance of the effects of alcohol on the kinetics of other classes of drug is incomplete. The probability and mechanism of alcohol kinetic interactions with other drugs can nevertheless be anticipated, in part, on the basis of the extent of binding of the drug to plasma proteins, the capacity of the liver for extracting the drug from blood passing through the liver and the true distribution space of the drug. Highly bound drugs with low intrinsic hepatic clearance are among the most commonly reported to have their kinetics altered by ethanol (e.g. benzodiazepines, phenytoin, tolbutamide and warfarin). Less highly bound drugs are less consistently affected (e.g. meprobamate, glutethimide, pentobarbitone and phenobarbitone).
Acute administration of ethanol to laboratory animals or incubation of microsomal preparations with ethanol inhibits the mixed function oxidase activity. In the human, the elimination half-life of meprobamate, pentobarbitone and tolbutamide is increased by acute ethanol administration. Chronic administration of ethanol to rats and humans causes proliferation of the smooth endoplasmic reticulum, increase in microsomal protein content and cytochrome P450 and results in an augmentation in drug metabolising ability of the microsomes in vitro. Even though the plasma half-life of some drugs is decreased by chronic ethanol ingestion, the clinical determination of the mechanism is incomplete because few studies have measured drug metabolite levels. In addition, alcohol effects on drug distribution have not been studied very extensively.
The effects of chronic alcohol ingestion on drugs with low and high hepatic extraction, high and low binding, important tissue localisation and microsomal and non-microsomal metabolism will be quite different. Systematic studies of the mechanism of alcohol kinetic interactions are needed. Such kinetic studies should be combined with pharmacodynamic measures in order to establish the clinical importance of changes in drug kinetics.