and the Immune System

How Does Alcohol Affect the Immune System?

According to research gathered by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 85.6% of American adults have drunk alcohol at some point. In other words, the overwhelming majority of Americans drink. NIAAA reports that about 70% of American adults consumed alcohol in the year surveyed. Most don’t think about how alcohol affects the immune system when they choose to drink. 

Scientists have explored alcohol’s effect on the immune system for decades. It certainly affects it, but how? We’ll explore how it does for better or worse below to bash common myths

What Is Alcohol?

Alcohol is officially known as ethanol or ethyl alcohol. It becomes an alcoholic beverage when the yeast and sugar break down. Without oxygen, it ferments. Although legal, alcohol is classified as a drug. Specifically, it’s in the class of drugs known as depressants. Unlike stimulants, they slow down the body’s systems. Yet, some literature makes the point that a certain amount can have a stimulant effect. 

The Foundation For a Drug-Free World notes the usual alcohol content for popular forms of alcoholic beverages:

  • Beer – 2-6% 
  • Liqueurs – 15-60% 
  • Ciders – 4-8% 
  • Tequila – 40% 
  • Brandy – 40% 
  • Rum – 40% 
  • Whiskey – Up to 50% 
  • Gin – Up to 47% 
  • Vodka – Up to 50% 
  • Wine – Up to 20% 

Depressants can make a person feel loose and relaxed. This is because they affect the central nervous system primarily. It slows down exchanges between the body and brain. Alcohol is no different. This can result in both desirable and undesirable effects. 

Common short-term and long-term effects include: 

  • Decreased motor function 
  • Heightened mood 
  • Confusion 
  • Blurred vision 
  • Memory loss 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Headaches 
  • Erectile dysfunction and decreased libido 

Over time, alcohol can impact the immune system severely. People often combine alcohol with other substances, which can take a serious toll on the body. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) says that a combination of caffeine, benzos, or even energy drinks can cause violent symptoms. For instance, these range from panic and paranoia to overdosing. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) writes that an average of 6 people dies of alcohol poisoning each day. There is no time to think of how does alcohol affect the immune system if they are dead. Alcohol poisoning is completely preventable, but thousands of Americans die from it every year. Alcohol’s effect on the immune system in a way leads to this. 

Immune System

How Does Alcohol Affect the Immune System Negatively

In short, alcohol has a negative effect on the immune system. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) describes the immune system as a system of cells that keep the body healthy throughout the body. They prevent disease and work hard to limit infection. Every immune cell is birthed in the bone marrow but appears in many other parts of the body. 

Immune cells come in different forms that act as first responders to infection: 

  • Neutrophils 
  • Eosinophils 
  • Basophils 
  • Mast cells 
  • Macrophages 
  • Dendritic cells 
  • Monocytes 

A peer-reviewed piece called, “Alcohol and the Immune System,” writes that excessive alcohol consumption can cause immune-related problems. It notes that initial studies didn’t understand the full scope of how alcohol affects the immune system. After decades of research, various scientists prove that it leads to a slew of medical issues. 

Some of the ways alcohol affects the immune system negatively include: 

  • Pneumonia 
  • Acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS) 
  • Sepsis 
  • Alcoholic liver disease (ALD) 
  • Certain cancers 
  • Complications after operation 
  • Slower/incomplete healing time in general
  • Greater risk of HIV
  • Hepatitis 

To surmise, research shows that alcohol interrupts immune pathways. Why this happens is complex and seems contrary at times. When immune pathways are disrupted, it makes it tough for the body to fight off infection. This is especially so because it can damage the organs. 

Chronic drinkers have a weakened immune system and usually inflammation. In summary, alcohol is consumed via the gastrointestinal tract. Constant drinking burns away healthy microbes in the gut aka the intestinal immune system. 

Then, the damage leads to an unhealthy bacterial gut leak into other bodily systems. For example, the liver detoxifies the body. With excessive alcohol consumption, bacteria leaks into the immune system within the liver. This upsets the liver, sometimes beyond repair, in the form of ALD. 

Alcohol's Affect on the Immune System

Myths On How Alcohol Affect the Immune System Positively  

Furthermore, it would be lovely if alcohol was good for you. In fact, a common popular myth says that some types of alcohol are good for the immune system. Many popular sites from Healthline to Mayo Clinic perpetuate the myth that red wine can be good for your health. On the contrary, no long-term study has ever come to this conclusion. 

According to Harvard’s health blog, the myth started from an observation. It’s that French people drink lots of wine and have low heart disease rates. This phenomenon, the French Paradox, spurred a theory that the grape skins in red wine contain enough polyphenols to boost the immune system. Polyphenols are naturally found in many fruits and vegetables. They are known as micronutrients aka antioxidants. Moreover, antioxidants might improve the immune system. 

However, the levels of polyphenols in wine aren’t enough to jumpstart an immune system. It’s particularly the case when it’s a known fact that alcohol affects the immune system negatively.  Other highlights from Harvard’s blog about alcohol are: 

  • Lifestyle and diet most likely play into fewer health issues 
  • The study that backed the French Paradox was done on mice and couldn’t be replicated on humans 
  • Men over 65 should avoid drinking more than a glass of wine 
  • Resveratol, the polyphenol in wine, has no proven benefit even as a supplement 

It’s much easier for people to go along with the lie than admit the truth. The cons of drinking outweigh the pros. Though, research also indicates that red wine in moderation leads to no ill effect on the immune system. Moderation is key when it comes to drinking. So, plug the cork into the wine bottle after a glass, however tempting it might be.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Immune System With a Substance Use Disorder?

When a person has a substance use disorder, it affects their immune system as a whole. Hauling chemical production into overdrive or slowing it down takes a toll on the body. Add in alcohol, and it can lead to even more issues. As aforementioned, alcohol on its own disrupts immune function. Putting more pressure on the immune system can lead to infections and diseases quicker. 

With this, health issues are likely to come about more aggressively and take longer to go away. More than that, research shows that mixing alcohol with other substances can lead to an untimely death. The bacterial gut leak from excessive alcohol consumption hurts the liver. 

It’s tough for a person’s liver to detoxify the body from excessive alcohol use and from other substances at the same time. A detox program at an alcohol use disorder treatment center can help get the body back to its natural state. It might never be the same without it. 

How Does Alcohol Affect the Immune System During COVID-19? 

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has created quite a storm within the medical community. Despite clashing opinions in some areas, doctors agree that people should hold off on drinking. As said before, alcohol acts as a depressant and it hurts the immune system through excessive use. Put these two together and it results in an increased risk of catching COVID-19. 

Moreover, this period in history is stressful, to put it lightly. Family members have perished. Funerals are postponed to avoid spreading the virus further. Turning to alcohol might seem like a good option. But, it’s not. Yes, alcoholic beverages may take off the edge in the short-term as a depressant. Though, stressors don’t go away when it wears off. Stress and a compromised immune system make it hard to ward off diseases and infections. It’s never been a better time to stop drinking alcohol. 

When To Worry About How Does Alcohol Affect the Immune System 

Finally, it’s time for one to worry about how alcohol affects the immune system when she can’t live without it. Generally speaking, alcohol is alright in moderation. People should drink no more than four to five standard drinks in a day. Also, they shouldn’t be drinking every day. Alcohol can be a detriment to the immune system when: 

  • Someone blacks out from drinking frequently
  • A person can’t stop drinking no matter how hard they try 
  • An individual avoids situations where they’re unable to drink 
  • They’ve begun to develop health issues as a result of drinking 

These are just a few examples. It’s time to check into a reputable alcohol use disorder when any of these red flags arise. A medical intervention can turn back the clock on immune system damage. This is applicable even in the worst scenarios. Starting today means a better, quicker chance of living life as it should be.

Sana Lake Knows How Does Alcohol Affect the Immune System 

Sana Lake specializes in showing recovering individuals the right path to a happy and healthy life. It’s not easy. How does alcohol affect the immune system plays into overcoming an alcohol use disorder. If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, contact us now. We can beat this uphill battle together.  

References: 

Article Reviewed by David Sherman, MD

David Sherman, MD is a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (FASAM) and board certified in Addiction Medicine with the American Board of Preventive Medicine. He is a native Missourian and graduated medical school at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine. Dr. Sherman completed a two-year fellowship in Addiction Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville. He leads a highly trained staff of master level certified addiction professionals. Men and women from all over Missouri and the United States come to Sana Lake Recovery Center to get the care they need and deserve.