How Does Alcohol Affect Your Immune System?
Alcohol is one of the most common intoxicants on the planet. In fact, 65% of all Americans over the age of 21 drink regularly. But, alcohol, like other drugs, is actually bad for you, and even in minimal doses, can cause significant damage to your immune system, your gastrointestinal system, and your energy levels. However, the more you drink, the worse those side-effects get.
Alcohol will almost always affect your immune system, because it is, in essence, a very mild poison. Alcohol toxicity happens when you drink too much, and that means that at any dose, alcohol is toxic. Let’s go over the details and the science in the article below.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is comprised of white blood cells and immune cells spread throughout the body – especially in the lungs and the gut. This system responds to and fights off infection, disease and toxins.
It also comprises two parts, including the innate immune system, or the cells that directly respond to attackers and the adaptive immune system, which remembers previous infection and responds to that. So, the innate immune system always responds, but after you catch a cold, your body responds to that mutation of the virus and may prevent you from getting it or reduce the effects of catching it the next time.
Drinking affects both of these systems. For example, it impacts the innate immune system directly. Your body responds to the toxics that are alcohol by inflaming. That’s why many people experience stomach upset after drinking. It’s also why you may feel fluish the day after binge drinking.
It also affects the adaptive immune system, because your body remembers the last time you drank alcohol and produces an immune system response. This means your body is put to work every time you drink – and your immune system is less prepared to fight off an actual infection. And, there’s nothing you can do to stop this process.
Immune System Suppression
Drinking alcohol suppresses the immune system over the short-term. In fact, drinking 5-6 alcoholic drinks in a single session will suppress the immune system for up to 24 hours after the last drink. This happens because alcohol is a toxin and it directly inflames the intestines and the immune system. This means your immune system is less prepared to react to a virus or another illness. You drink, your immune system responds by inflaming and activating cells, and then your immune system is not prepared to fight off another attacker. In addition, you’re likely under slept, undernourished, and possibly even dehydrated after a night of drinking. All of that adds up to make you significantly more susceptible to getting sick than you would normally be.
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Immune Cell Damage
People who drink frequently start to experience immune cell damage, especially in the gut and in the lungs. This happens because the immune cells constantly inflame and are exposed to toxins. The result is that they can experience irreparable damage, meaning that your immune system is permanently worsened. For this reason, people with alcoholism are more likely to develop inflammatory bowel diseases such as Chron’s, IBS, and etc.
You’re also more likely to develop chronic lung conditions, as damaged immune cells are ill-prepared to fight off attacks in the lungs. This means that heavy drinkers are significantly more likely to develop pneumonia and bronchitis, even from a normal head cold infection. Here, you are likely more vulnerable to a first infection, or what is known as a head cold. However, you’re significantly more vulnerable to a secondary infection, where the cold moves to the lower respiratory system of the lungs and bronchial tubes – which can be a significant and serious condition.
Of course, “more likely” does not mean “guaranteed”, but it does significantly increase risks. And, the more you drink and the more often, the greater those risks become. Most studies indicate that heavy drinking increases risks of lower respiratory infections by 3-7 times.
Long-Term Immune System Damage
The more and more often you drink, the larger the impact to your immune system will be. That will impact your life and your quality of life. A weakened immune system means:
- Illnesses, even the common cold, last longer
- You get sick more often and illness is more severe
- You’re more prone to infection and may need special care after surgery
- You’re more tired or fatigued when sick and may not be able to do anything at all while sick
- Small cuts and scratches are more vulnerable to infection and may require medical attention
- You’re more prone to stomach upset, diarrhea, and stomach inflammation
Those issues can be significant, especially when you do get a major illness.
There is no safe amount of alcohol consumption that does not disrupt the immune system. However, drinking fewer than 10 drinks per week and no more than 4 in a setting, or preferably no more than 1.5 servings of alcohol per day for women and 2 servings of alcohol per day for men will reduce risks as much as possible – except for not drinking at all, which is, by far, the healthiest option. But, if you’re drinking every day and drinking more than four drinks in a sitting, your risks are significantly higher. In addition, heavy alcohol consumption increases your risks of organ damage, including to the liver and kidneys, as well as to the intestines, all of which will go on to affect the immune system further.
If you or a loved one is drinking heavily, there is help. That help can range from strategies to reduce drinking with support. It can also include rehab and behavioral therapy to help you develop new coping mechanisms or healthy alternatives to drinking. And, if you try to cut back or to stop drinking and find that you can’t, that therapy and help is necessary.
Alcohol is everywhere and most of us drink at least occasionally. But, that doesn’t mean it’s safe and it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have side effects. Alcohol can significantly impact every aspect of your health, mental health, and your life, so if you’re struggling, it’s important to get professional medical help.
If you or your loved-one struggles from alcoholism or other substance abuse please contact us today and speak with one of our experienced and professional intake advisors about our detox, partial hospitalization, and residential treatment programs. We’re here to help you recover.