Alcohol affects many organs, including the immune system, and even moderate amounts of alcohol influence immune responses.

During the COVID-19 quarantine, sales of alcohol have increased, hence its consumption. With so many hours indoors, not being able to go to work, and boredom caused by quarantine, people drink more than usual.

But it goes without saying that alcohol is not a health supplement. However, you may not know how it affects your immune system.

By this time, we have all become a little more aware of our immunity. While drinking alcohol can weaken your immune system, there are steps you can take to feel better the next day.

Here’s some information you should know, plus some tips to support and strengthen your immunity.

How does alcohol affect your body?

Be prepared because the full disclosure will not be pleasant at all.

While occasional drinking can help you relax and make social contact more enjoyable, alcohol can also cause dehydration, deplete vitamins and nutrients, worsen sleep, cause inflammation, and throw your gut bacteria out of balance, all of which can weaken your immunity capacity of your body.

Here are the details on what happens to your body when you drink alcohol.

Alcohol abuse suppresses multiple arms of the immune response, increasing the risk of infections. The course and resolution of bacterial and viral infections is severely impaired in patients who abuse alcohol, resulting in increased patient morbidity and mortality. PMCID: PMC3887500 PMID: 23579940

Metabolism is prioritized

Your body cannot store alcohol and will want to remove it as soon as possible, so it stops doing everything it is doing and makes it the top priority for metabolism. That means alcohol is prioritized ahead of protein, carbohydrates, and fat.

Alcohol basically comes with an escort to your liver, because it’s your job to break it down and get it out. As alcohol is processed, water and nutrients are used to remove it, leaving your body exhausted and dehydrated.

Causes inflammation

Inflammation is the biggest overall effect alcohol has on your body.

Inflammation is your body’s protective response to threats. In response to alcohol, your body generates endotoxins that trigger inflammation. If you drink frequently, your body will never be able to lower its defenses. Staying in a constant state of inflammation impacts your body, eventually causing damage to your tissues in the form of chronic inflammation.

Disturbs the balance of your gut bacteria

Alcohol causes a rapid overgrowth of certain intestinal bacteria. The toxins they produce overwhelm helpful bacteria, disrupting the delicate systems that process food and send signals to your immune system to protect the body.

One study found that 30% of people with liver disease caused by alcohol have a rare strain of gut bacteria that produces a cell-destroying toxin called cytolysin.

When stimulated by alcohol, another rapidly reproducing bacteria begins to produce something called lipopolysaccharide (LPS). LPS overwhelms intestinal bacteria, allowing these toxins to penetrate the intestinal barrier and spread throughout the body to other organs.

Toxins affect more than just your gut. The liver’s job is to filter these toxins and send them out of the body. As you try to keep up, your liver will eventually develop a life-threatening condition called cirrhosis.

Contributes to fatty liver disease

According to the Cleveland Clinic , approximately 90% of people who drink 4-5 drinks per day for decades have fatty liver . That’s reason enough to consider quitting so often and ordering non-alcoholic cocktails.

How does alcohol affect immunity?

When your body is exposed to a threat, the immune system prepares a response to the attack and eliminates the foreign pathogen. In general, the healthier a person’s immune system, the faster they can eliminate an invading bacteria, antigen, or virus and recover from illness.

Alcohol makes it difficult for your immune system to work properly, so to speak. This is how the different harmful processes for the body happen:

Distract your immune system

If your body is constantly working to get rid of alcohol, you may not notice other problems that start to appear.

Your brain plays an important role in detecting danger when it’s time to boost your immune response. In response to stress, your brain activates the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal (HPA) axes. The HPA axis along with your body’s immune cells keep inflammation under control.

The problem is that your HPA axis interprets alcohol as a stressful event and when you drink it raises your stress hormone levels. Chronic alcohol exposure can saturate the HPA axis and dampen your body’s response to other stressors. That means your body will have a harder time controlling inflammation.

This is a long way of saying that alcohol is bad for the immune system, and it will become more difficult for the immune system to do its job over time.

In fact, according to the CDC , drinking alcohol increases your chances of developing six different types of cancer, and the more you drink, the greater your chances.

Damage your physical defenses

Alcohol can damage the microscopic cilia at the top of the lungs that trap and stop harmful bacteria, antigens, and viruses as they enter.

If the invaders outnumber the cilia, that’s bad news because alcohol will also damage the last line of defense – the mucous membrane at the bottom of the lungs, which generally prevents invaders from penetrating the body. Studies show that drinking makes the lungs more susceptible to diseases like pneumonia and viruses.

Makes us vulnerable to infections, diseases and other chronic conditions

Alcohol has a wide range of effects on the structural, cellular, and humoral components of the immune system. This alcohol-induced dysregulation of the immune system makes the patient susceptible to a wide variety of infectious pathogens, resulting in biomedical consequences, such as an increased risk of infections after surgery, traumatic injuries, or burns; from liver disease, such as hepatitis C infection, fibrosis, and liver cancer; and infections in the lungs; and an accelerated progression of HIV disease.

What can you do with this information?

The CDC defines moderate alcohol consumption as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. That said, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been taking a conservative stance during this pandemic, recommending that the optimal amount of alcohol per day be… nothing.

It is important to make informed decisions about your health. But what do we make of this general knowledge that alcohol is bad for us? Should we stop drinking completely?

Many threats can affect your body’s immune system, from quality of sleep to gut bacteria. Unlike other health factors, the amount of alcohol you drink is in your hands.

Consider that alcohol is part of our social lives. It is part of how we interact with friends (virtually or otherwise). It is something we enjoy at dinner with our loved ones.

If we drink from time to time, we can get some benefits. If we drink too much and too often, we will lose those benefits.

Dr. Eric Jackson

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses. He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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