How Does Alcohol Affect Your Immune System?

September 14, 2020

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Immune System?

In this article:

  • The effect of alcohol on our immune system
  • What is the connection between alcohol consumption and COVID-19?
  • Defining alcohol abuse and the sober-curious movement
  • Best practices for detoxing from alcohol
  • How to practice healthy alcohol consumption

How alcohol affects the immune system

Excessive alcohol consumption can be damaging to parts of your overall health including your liver, cardiovascular system, and less commonly known, your immune system. Alcohol consumption can lead to a reduction of the signaling molecules that support the immune system. This then causes the white blood cells which fight off flu germs and other toxic substances to weaken to about a quarter of their usual efficiency. Even a glass of wine in the evening can alter your immunity by promoting inflammation, causing leaky gut syndrome, and blocking anti-inflammatory mechanisms.

Your gut health and immune system are closely linked. In fact, a huge percentage of the body’s immune cells are found within the gastrointestinal tract. Inside your gut are millions of microbes that work together to prevent disease, communicate with your central nervous system, digest foods, and regulate your immune system. When you drink, the alcohol disrupts and destroys parts of the gut’s barrier of microbes, allowing more bacteria to pass from the gut and into your blood cells, which then weakens your immune cells. The destructive bacteria can also leak into the liver causing your liver to inflame and possibly become diseased. It also damages the epithelial cells in your intestines, making it harder to absorb many nutrients.

Drinking alcohol also reduces the number and function of three important kinds of cells in your immune system–macrophages, T-cells, C-cells and B-cells. When your B and C cells are suppressed, your immune system is less efficient at identifying and destroying invading pathogens, leaving you vulnerable to disease and infection.

The adverse effects of alcohol on your immune system coincide with the amount of alcohol you consume. Heavy drinking lowers your immune system and makes it easier for you to get a flu or cold. It could even lower your immunity to the point of getting pneumonia or causing respiratory infections such as ARDS and tuberculosis. Excessive drinking affects you proportionately. Binge drinking is the most damaging to the body. Binge drinking is defined by the CDC as “a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours.” Binge drinking forces the body to get more intoxicated and stay intoxicated longer, using any of your body’s energy that should be fighting illness and diverting it to digesting and ridding the body of alcohol. On top of lowering your immune system, alcohol also causes your blood pressure to increase to unhealthy levels and can lead to alcohol use disorders.

COVID-19 & alcohol consumption

Due to the pandemic, many people have gotten into the habit of consuming more alcohol, especially when the stay at home order was placed in the United States. Alcohol research from the Morning Consult found that 16% of adults say they’re drinking more alcohol as a result of quarantine. The Associated Press reported, “U.S. sales of alcoholic beverages rose 55% in the week ending March 21. Spirits like tequila, gin, and pre-mixed cocktails led the way, with sales jumping 75% compared to the same period last year.” Whether people are stockpiling for a rainy day or using alcohol to pass the time while quarantined, the huge spike in alcohol purchases in the wake of the pandemic has many health experts concerned.

In particular, ‘binge drinking’ is on the rise in the US and around the world. Binge drinking is a slippery slope both for your health and consumption levels. The health of your immune system is more important now than ever. Studies have shown that alcohol consumption can lead to the development or worsening of respiratory illnesses, giving a reason to believe that it may make you more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2. This is especially true for high-risk individuals. Even for those not in the “high risk” category, the World Health Organization advises against heavy drinking to avoid making you more vulnerable or less likely to recover from COVID-19.

Alcohol abuse & the the “sober-curious” movement

Immoderate drinking can lead up to alcohol abuse, even in unsuspecting people. You don’t need to have a family member with an alcohol problem nor a family history of addictions to become reliant on booze. Quarantine has disrupted the daily structure many of us have become so accustomed to, so many turn to alcohol for entertainment. Just like any other substance abuse, excessive drinking is a slippery slope that can result in a physical dependency on alcohol.

One of the major public health problems in the US is alcohol abuse. A 2018 study shows that alcohol is one of the leading causes of preventable death in the U.S., right after tobacco and poor diet. This study estimates that an average of more than 88,000 people die every year due to alcohol-related causes.

Signs of alcohol abuse as defined by the American Addiction Center:

  • You drink 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per occasion (for women).
  • You drink more than 14 drinks per week or more than 4 drinks per occasion (for men).
  • You have more than 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per occasion (for men and women older than 65).
  • Consuming these amounts of alcohol harms your health, relationships, work, and/or causes legal problems.

Many people are becoming aware of the negative effects of alcohol and just how easy it is to become dependent on it. That’s why the “sober-curious” movement is gaining footing and helping people to re-evaluate their relationship to alcohol before it takes a turn for the worst.

According to an interview with Ruby Warrington, who wrote the book Sober Curious, she explains that being sober-curious doesn't mean you have to cut off alcohol completely; rather, it encourages people to explore the intention with alcohol drinking. If you find that lately, you've been drinking more than usual and it is causing adverse effects, this could be a chance for you to reduce your alcohol intake gradually in the short-run or it could even lead to stopping drinking permanently. Many people in this movement have noticed positive changes and benefits to their social lives and overall health.

Being a part of the sober-curious movement starts by asking yourself why you choose to pick up a drink in the first place. Is it to socialize? Maybe you want to take the edge off after a long workday or maybe you need help relaxing. After answering this question, try connecting your answer with how you feel during and after a drink. Are you more sluggish? Do you avoid social situations where you can’t drink? The purpose of those questions is for you to take a hard look at the role alcohol shapes your mental and physical health and question what it might be like to live a sober life. Being “sober-curious” and reducing your alcohol intake is easier than ever with mocktails and non-alcoholic spirits on the rise, to continue providing the social aspect of drinking without all the negative physical effects.

Once you’re aware alternatives exist, you can start experimenting with these non-alcoholic alternatives to help alleviate stress and take your mind off of alcohol:

  • Try a new at-home exercise routine or take a new class! Running clubs, spin classes, yoga studios, dancing, or even gardening can help to reduce stress-causing hormones and build a new, healthy routine in a supportive environment.
  • Meditation helps to tune the mind back to your body’s needs and avoid stressful and overwhelming environments. It’s a great way to start or end your day.
  • Download an app that tracks all the money saved that otherwise would have been spent on drinks. Then, at the end of the week, treat yourself to something special or put it towards a savings account for something big!
  • Take back your nights with at-home spa treatments! Face masks, hot baths, and deep conditioning treatments can bring self-care back to your schedule.

Alcohol detox

If you are thinking about taking an alcohol break, it's good to know about the detox process. Of course, the detox process depends on how much and how long you have been drinking. If you had a long weekend of heavy drinking, it takes approximately about 12 hours after your last drink to become fully sober.

If you're someone who struggles with consistent alcohol abuse, the initial detox takes about a week. Eight hours after your last drink is when you'll start to feel light symptoms and after 72 hours, these symptoms will increase more intensely. 5-7 days later these symptoms will decrease but some psychological symptoms may start.

Following that first week, you may start to feel withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, anxiety and insomnia. Those who've experienced heavy substance often experience fever, seizures and even hallucinations. A person can experience alcohol withdrawal syndrome whether they have been drinking for weeks, months, or years. Withdrawal syndrome can be dangerous, particularly if a person experiences severe hallucinations or seizures. For this reason, it is advisable to go to a rehab center, where the staff can help monitor worsening symptoms.

It’s all about balance

Starting at a young age, many of us have been warned about the dangers of alcohol abuse but alcohol can shape your life in unexpected ways as we age. Addiction and dependency can mean different things to different people. Having a couple of drinks throughout the week isn’t going to destroy your immunity but during these times, your health needs all the extra protection it can get. When paired with the other good-for-you rules of thumb like exercising and eating a healthy diet, managing your alcohol consumption is a great way to protect your immunity, especially during a global pandemic. If you are interested in re-evaluating your relationship with alcohol, you can check out the Sober Movement here to learn more and join the community. If you’re seeking help with alcohol addiction, you can call the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) at 1 (800) NCA-CALL (622-2255) or explore other options online.

Summary Points

  • Excessive alcohol consumption may lead to numerous health issues, including a compromized immune system
  • Heavy drinking may make you more prone to flu or cold, and the COVID-19 virus
  • Alcohol abuse is one of the primary health concerns in the U.S., and one of the leading causes of preventable death in America
  • The sober-curious movement encouraging people to question their drinking habits and the reason they reach for a drink in the first place
  • The intensity and duration of alcohol detox depend on the quantity and longevity of alcohol consumption
  • When it comes to alcohol, it's all about balance, protecting your immunity, and recognizing a problem when you've identified there is one

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Article References:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/can-alcohol-hurt-your-immune-system-during-covid-19-outbreak#:~:text=Drinking%20impairs%20immune%20cells%20in%20key%20organs&text=By%20default%2C%20alcohol%20makes%20it,serious%20infections%2C%E2%80%9D%20said%20Dr.
  2. https://www.burningtree.com/is-alcohol-destroying-your-immune-system/
  3. https://www.avogel.co.uk/health/immune-system/3-ways-alcohol-affects-the-immune-system/
  4. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sober-curious-movement-coronavirus_l_5e95da78c5b6cc788eafe644#:~:text=What%20exactly%20is%20the%20sober,reasons%20to%20abstain%20from%20alcohol.
  5. https://blog.myfitnesspal.com/does-alcohol-harm-your-immune-system/
  6. https://morningconsult.com/2020/04/06/coronavirus-social-distancing-millennials-eating-drinking/
  7. https://www.cornerstoneofrecovery.com/signs-you-might-be-drinking-too-much-during-the-coronavirus-quarantine/
  8. https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/128320/How-binge-drinking-can-give-you-the-flu#:~:text=Drinking%20large%20amounts%20of%20alcohol,the%20body%20is%20under%20attack.
  9. https://takomacare.com/blog/effect-alcohol-immune-system/
  10. https://familydoctor.org/condition/alcohol-abuse/
  11. https://www.midwoodaddictiontreatment.com/how-long-does-it-take-to-get-sober/#:~:text=An%20average%20liver%20can%20process,express%20purpose%20of%20developing%20alcoholism.
  12. https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/resources/medical-conditions/alcohol-and-stds/#:~:text=Binge%20drinking%20forces%20the%20body,last%20year%20than%20non%2Ddrinkers.
  13. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6930a1.htm?s_cid=mm6930a1_w
  14. https://www.healthandwellnessalerts.berkeley.edu/topics/lung-disorders/heavy-drinking-linked-to-higher-risk-of-acute-respiratory-distress-syndrome/#:~:text=Critically%20ill%20hospital%20patients%20who,oxygen%20supply%20to%20the%20body.
  15. https://www.who.int/nmh/a5818/en/#:~:text=Health%20problems%20associated%20with%20alcohol,diseases%20and%20unsafe%20sexual%20behaviour.




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