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Does Drinking Alcohol Decreases Your Immune System?

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You might be aware of the health issues caused by alcohol, such as liver damage or cognitive decline. However, did you know that there is proof that drinking might also compromise your immune system? Read more to learn about how drinking alcohol can negatively impact your immune system.

By We Level Up | Editor Yamilla Francese | Clinically Reviewed By Lauren Barry, LMFT, MCAP, QS, Director of Quality Assurance | Editorial Policy | Research Policy | Last Updated: November 23, 2022

Does Drinking Alcohol Decreases Your Immune System?

You might be aware of the health issues caused by alcohol, such as liver damage or cognitive decline. However, did you know that there is proof that drinking might also compromise your immune system?

You are more susceptible to sickness if your immune system is compromised. Examples consist of specific tumors, as well as pneumonia, and other respiratory issues. Additionally, it may result in post-operative problems and a slow recovery from wounds like fractured bones.

There are several different cell types in your immune system, and each of them plays a vital yet distinct role in keeping you healthy. Alcohol prevents these immune cells from performing their functions.

How The Immune System Works

Alcohol negatively affects the immune system through its effect on the liver. An important component of the innate immune system, the liver produces a wide variety of antibacterial proteins. If the liver is severely damaged by alcohol, it is less capable of producing these proteins, thereby increasing our susceptibility to bacterial infection. Indeed, a bacterial infection is one of the most common complications of severe alcoholic hepatitis and alcoholic cirrhosis.

How does the immune system works? Our bodies are constantly exposed to a barrage of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Some of these are necessary for our well-being, such as the bacteria that live in the intestine and help with digestion. Others can cause disease or have other toxic effects. The immune system is the body’s defense against infectious diseases, helping to distinguish, for example, between “bad” and “good” bacteria and eradicating harmful organisms (pathogens) from the body.

Equally important, however, is the immune system’s ability to detect tissue damage and direct the body’s response, including removing damaged tissue and assisting in subsequent tissue repair and regeneration. To perform all of these tasks, the immune system relies on an elaborate network of highly specialized cells that interact in a tightly orchestrated way. 

The tissues and cells of your body have proteins called self-antigens. Likewise, living organisms that can cause infections do too, though their antigens are not the same. Your immune system “flags” foreign antigens to quickly target the invading microorganisms and destroy them, protecting you from harm.

White blood cells (WBCs), the cornerstone of your immune system, are called leukocytes. There are various types of leukocytes, each with unique features that work together to protect you from infections.

Depending on the leukocyte, it may help the “seek and destroy” function of the immune system by:

  • Rapidly recognizing germs
  • Binding to germs
  • Engulfing and surrounding germs
  • Using chemicals contained within to destroy germs

Others take time to recognize and respond to infectious microorganisms. Macrophages are leukocytes that circulate throughout the blood and tissues, while neutrophils are leukocytes that circulate in the blood, patrolling for new foreign antigens.

Does Drinking Alcohol Decreases Your Immune System?
Does drinking alcohol decrease your immune system? Prolonged alcohol consumption can weaken the body’s natural defense against disease, putting heavy drinkers at risk of getting sick and perhaps staying sick.

Invading germs and microorganisms enter the body through different entry points, such as the nostrils or a cut on the skin’s surface. When these particular leukocytes recognize such infectious threats, they send chemical signals that attract other leukocytes to surround, absorb, and destroy these harmful substances.

Macrophages and neutrophils, along with other leukocytes, such as basophils and mast cells, secrete chemicals that damage or kill foreign microorganisms, and then they engulf the cellular debris to “clean it up.”

Alcoholism Statistics

People from many walks of life are impacted by alcoholism. The United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than 88,000 people pass away in the country each year as a result of alcohol-related causes. In addition, alcohol remains one of the most avoidable causes of death in the country, right behind tobacco, a bad diet, and a sedentary lifestyle.


86%

Eighty-six percent of those who are 18 and older said they have consumed alcohol at some point in their lives.

Source: NIH

69.5%

In the previous year, 69.5 percent said they had consumed alcohol.

Source: NIH

7.2%

Those who had AUD in the last year and were 12 years of age or older had treatment in the past year in 7.2% of cases.

Source: NIH


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Alcohol And Immune System

Many individuals are aware that excessive drinking can be harmful to the liver and other vital organs. However, there is another, less obvious, body system that is vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol: the immune system. Due to alcohol’s effects on the immune system, people who drink to excess are at increased risk of contracting infectious diseases, may have more complications after surgery, and often take longer to recover from illness than those who drink at lower levels. Disruptions in immune system function also contribute to organ damage associated with alcohol consumption.

Prolonged alcohol consumption can weaken the body’s natural defense against diseases, putting heavy drinkers at risk of getting sick and perhaps staying sick. Alcohol in large amounts can be so harmful to the immune system that a person who indulges in excessive drinking could be just as much at risk of getting sick as someone who drinks regularly. Consuming large amounts of alcohol on only one occasion can affect the body’s ability to defend itself against infections. A person can have impaired immune health for up to 24 hours after having too much to drink.

Drinking alcohol weakens the immune system. Drinking alcohol heavily can impair the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Alcohol actually blocks nutrients from feeding the immune system. Once alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach, the body’s white blood cell count falls, making it harder for the immune system to fight against the disease. Red blood cells are also affected when alcohol circulates throughout the body. Alcohol causes a “blood sludging” effect when it comes into contact with red blood cells. This happens when red blood cells clump together and become plugged up, reducing oxygen to many of the body’s vital organs.

Overall, prolonged alcoholism may result in autoimmunity, a phase of the immune system during which the body attacks its own tissues. Perhaps the most dangerous effect is that alcohol use may affect the white blood cells in the body, which are responsible for getting rid of killer white blood cells. Without this defense system, a person is at a heightened risk of developing more life-threatening diseases, such as cancer.

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

The NIAAA defines heavy drinking as consuming more than three drinks per day for women or more than four per day for men. Still, even moderate drinking can have a negative effect on immune system health. Some research suggests that using light amounts of alcohol may have positive effects on immune health; however, this research is controversial and has not been well-proven.

Ultimately, the best way to prevent alcohol from affecting the immune system is to avoid using alcohol altogether. However, light drinkers (defined as less than one drink a day for women or less than two drinks a day for men) may be less likely to experience negative immune system effects than those who drink heavily.

Moderate Alcohol Use

Medical science has known for years that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol actually have a reduced risk of death. In general, they are healthier and have better cardiovascular function than those who don’t drink alcohol at all. Now, new research from Oregon Health & Science University adds a fascinating twist: moderate drinking may actually bolster our immune system and help it fight off infection.

Studies in humans and experimental animals suggest that low doses of ethanol may enhance the immune response. In humans, a moderate intake of alcohol in individuals exposed to rhinoviruses was associated with a decreased risk of developing the common cold, suggesting that moderate consumption of alcohol may enhance the immune response, resulting in more effective host defense. This enhancing effect might depend on the type of beverage (whether it is fermented or distilled).

Ethanol may be detrimental to immune cells due to the generation of free radicals during clearance; however, alcoholic beverages containing antioxidants should be protective against immune cell damage. Daily moderate consumption of alcohol (500 ml of a 12 % ethanol dilution), 500 ml of red wine, red grape juice, and de-alcoholized red wine for two weeks at doses that inversely correlate with cardiovascular disease risk did not show any effects on human immune cell functions.

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Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system? A person can have impaired immune health for up to 24 hours after having too much to drink.
Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system? A person can have impaired immune health for up to 24 hours after having too much to drink. 

Excessive Alcohol Use

Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system? Both acute and chronic alcohol abuse can induce significant defects in the body’s defense against microorganisms (i.e., pathogens) by interfering with multiple aspects of the immune response. Alcohol consumption is associated with a higher prevalence of alcoholic hepatitis and hepatitis C infection and increases the risk of infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), particularly in binge drinkers. Binge drinking is the consumption of an excessive amount of alcohol in a short period of time. Binge drinking happens when women have four or more drinks during a two-to-three-hour occasion, and men have five or more drinks during this same period.

Many people who binge drink do not struggle with alcohol dependence. However, that does not make them safer from alcohol use issues or the results of them, such as poor immune system health. According to the CDC, nearly 40 million Americans binge drink, and 90% of excessive drinkers are binge drinkers, who may exhibit that drinking pattern four times a month. On average, binge drinkers drink eight drinks a month.

In addition to compromising the immune cell function, chronic drinking and binge drinking can damage functions in the lungs, the gut, and the blood-brain barrier. The impact of alcohol abuse on the risk and severity of infection has been demonstrated particularly well for respiratory tract infections. Normally, the lungs and gut, like our skin, offer a physical and immunological shield against infection but too much alcohol can disrupt that.

How Do Drugs And Alcohol Affect The Immune System?

Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system? Substances like drugs and alcohol, each affect the immune system in different ways, but most work to weaken the immune system. This puts an addicted individual at higher risk of infection, contraction of diseases, and weaker organs which means a weakened filter system to fight the effects of substances.

When our immune systems are not interrupted by harmful pathogens, bodily functions will run smoothly. However, when the body encounters pathogens that are aggressive or that it has not encountered before, it can weaken the immune system. This is when illness can happen in the form of infections or diseases.

The risk to the immune system is not necessarily from drugs or alcohol, but from the toll, they take on the body. Many substances cause dehydration, mental or physical fatigue, and lack of food or sleep, which can result in a weakened immune system. When the immune system is down, it is at heightened risk for invasion of disease and infection.

Drinking Alcohol Weakens Immune System

Health Effects of Alcohol on the Gastrointestinal (GI) Tract

In addition to its direct effects on the immune system, alcohol can have an indirect impact on immunity through its actions in the stomach and intestines (GI tract). The GI tract is one of the first parts of the body to come into contact with alcohol and, as a result, bears the brunt of alcohol’s harmful effects.

Chronic alcohol exposure, and indeed even a single episode of binge drinking, can also damage the wall of the intestine. This will allow the bacterial toxins to leak from the intestine into the bloodstream which goes to the liver. This causes inflammation and increases the risk, and even severity, of diseases such as alcoholic liver disease. The migration of bacteria from the gut into the bloodstream also can lead to systemic infections, sepsis, and multiple organ failure.

Health Effects of Alcohol on the Liver

The main function of the liver is to break down nutrients from digested food and detoxify toxic substances after they pass through the gut. The liver is responsible for eliminating alcohol from the body, and, as such, it is especially susceptible to damage caused by alcohol and its toxic byproducts. In addition, alcohol-induced liver damage can lead to the activation of immune cells within the liver as part of the inflammatory response to tissue injury. With chronic, excessive alcohol use, this acute inflammatory response persists to become chronic inflammation and results in further damage, impaired tissue repair, and the development of increasingly severe forms of liver disease, including hepatitis, fibrosis (i.e., scar tissue formation), and, ultimately, cirrhosis of the liver.

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Health Effects Of Alcohol In The Immune System

In addition to those described above, a variety of other illnesses have been linked to the effects of alcohol on the immune system.

Health Effects of Alcohol on the Respiratory System

Alcohol damages numerous components of the lung’s defense system, increasing susceptibility to pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other respiratory infections. Heavy drinking hampers the ability of innate immune cells to identify and destroy bacteria that enter the airways and can produce lung infections.

Cancer

Alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, including cancers of the liver, mouth, and throat (i.e., upper aerodigestive tract), large intestine, and breast. The risk of harm differs depending on the type of cancer, the amount of alcohol consumed, and even genetic factors.

Alcohol’s effects on the immune system also may make cancer cells more aggressive. Normally, immune cells from both the innate and the adaptive immune system, and the molecules they produce, help to eliminate cancer cells and control cancer growth and progression. However, alcohol-induced disruption of immune cells may allow cancer to grow and progress.

HIV Infection

The complex interaction between alcohol, immunity, and disease is particularly relevant to HIV infection. HIV attacks the immune system by destroying a type of T cell vital to fighting infections. The destruction of these cells leaves people with HIV vulnerable to other infections, diseases, and complications.

Recovery from Traumatic Injury

About one-third of all patients with wounds such as burns, broken bones, and brain and other tissue injuries have blood alcohol content above the legal limit at the time of injury. Alcohol intoxication not only increases the risk of such injuries but can negatively affect outcomes for these patients.

These effects appear to be particularly attributed to altered immune function, which makes patients more vulnerable to subsequent challenges to the immune system, such as surgery or infection. As a result, these patients are more likely to die during the recovery period.

Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system?  Alcohol consumption does not have to be chronic to have negative health effects on the immune system.
Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system? Alcohol consumption does not have to be chronic to have negative health effects on the immune system.

Immune Activity in the Brain

Recently collected data from NIAAA [4] indicate that alcohol-induced immune activation contributes to neuropathology and perhaps even alcohol use disorder. Animal studies find that alcohol consumption increases neuronal damage via the activation of immune factors. Studies also have found that mice bred for high alcohol consumption exhibit an increase in the expression of certain genes involved in immune signaling, suggesting a role for immune cells in drinking behavior.

Drinking alcohol causes brain damage. Studies using postmortem human brains have found that immune factors are increased in the brains of people who had alcohol use disorder.

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Alcohol Addiction Treatment 

To determine the most effective ways to treat alcohol addiction, it’s crucial to first get an accurate assessment of all the symptoms. When the symptoms have been evaluated by a mental health professional, it may be determined that another form of mental condition is present and needs a particular type of treatment. Very often, some combination of psychotherapy, medication, and/or lifestyle changes are effective for coping with functional.

Medically-Assisted Detox

Detox is often considered the first stage of treatment. It will help you navigate the complicated process of alcohol withdrawal, but it doesn’t address patterns of thought and behavior that contribute to drug abuse. Various treatment approaches and settings can help provide the ongoing support necessary to maintain long-term sobriety after you complete detox.

Cravings are very common during detox and can be challenging to overcome. This often leads to relapse. Constant medical care provided during inpatient treatment helps prevent relapse. Clinicians can provide the necessary medication and medical expertise to lessen cravings and the effects of alcohol withdrawals.

Psychotherapy for Depression and Anxiety

Several different modalities of psychotherapy have been used in the treatment of depression including:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – An effective treatment that involves making changes in both the patterns of negative thoughts and the behavioral routines which are affecting the daily life of the depressed person for various forms of depression.
  • Person Centered Therapy – A strategy that allows and encourages clients to understand and resolve their concerns in a safe, supportive environment.
  • Solution Focused Therapy – An approach interested in solutions that can be quickly implemented with a simple first step leading to further positive consequences.
Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system?  Yes, also the immune signaling in the brain may contribute to alcohol use disorder.
Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system? Yes, also the immune signaling in the brain may contribute to alcohol use disorder.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Substance abuse and mental health disorders often co-occur. In many cases, traumatic experiences can result in mental health disorders and substance abuse. Dual diagnosis rehabilitation treats both of these issues together. The best approach for the treatment of dual diagnosis is an integrated system. In this strategy, both the substance abuse problem and the mental disorder are treated simultaneously. Regardless of which diagnosis (mental health or substance abuse problem) came first, long-term recovery will depend largely on the treatment for both disorders done by the same team or provider.

Medication-Assisted Treatments

Medication-Assisted Treatments (MAT) for substance use disorders and mental health disorders are commonly used in conjunction with one another. This includes the use of medications and other medical procedures. During your rehab, the staff from your treatment facility will help you identify what caused your addiction and teach you skills that will help you change your behavior patterns and challenge the negative thoughts that led to your addiction. Sometimes, the pressures and problems in your life lead you to rely on substances to help you forget about them momentarily.

Does drinking alcohol decreases your immune system? The obvious answer is yes. If an alcoholic decides to stop drinking, they may experience withdrawal effects such as anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, and tremors. The development of tolerance and withdrawal are indications of addiction. If you or a loved one are struggling with long-term alcohol abuse and a co-occurring mental health condition such as anxiety and depression, contact one of our helpful treatment specialists today. We Level Up NJ can provide information on dual diagnosis and detox programs that may fit your specific needs.

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Sources

[1] NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6912266/

[2] NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3887500/

[3] NCBI – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590612/

[4] NIAAA – https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA89/AA89.pdf

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Lee, M. R., Abshire, K. M., Farokhnia, M., et al. (2021). Effect of oral alcohol administration on plasma cytokine concentrations in heavy drinking individuals. Drug and Alcohol Dependence 225. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2021.108771.

Understanding alcohol and the immune system during COVID-19 [Online]. Available from: https://adf.org.au/insights/alcohol-immune-system-covid-19/.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” 2020. Accessed October 23, 2020.

Szabo, Gyongyi; Saha, Banishree. “Alcohol’s Effect on Host Defense.” Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 2015. Accessed October 23, 2020.