Alcohol and the Immune System

Alcohol and the Immune System
Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
17th September 2020

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In 30 seconds

Does alcohol suppress your immune system? According to much of the evidence, there is a very clear link between the damaging effects of alcohol and the immune system.
The system that helps your body fight disease and infection is based on a complex mix of different processes that involve your cells, organs, as well as your production of many proteins and chemicals. Alcohol damages these cells and organs, whilst inhibiting many of the processes essential to the effective functioning of the immune system as a whole.
If you want your immune system to be in its best shape, then, it is important to keep your alcohol consumption to a healthy level. This means about 14 units – or six pints – a week.

Alcohol and the Immune System

The effects of alcohol are notorious. On the one hand, it helps you to release your inhibitions, relax, and do things for which you might not otherwise have the confidence. On the other, it can make you more aggressive and negligent, and increase feelings of depression and sadness.

Alongside its emotional effects, however, alcohol has physiological impacts that we tend to underestimate. Alcohol can cause damage to the heart, brain, liver, and nervous system – to mention only its most common victims.

But what about alcohol and the immune system? Does alcohol suppress your immune system? In this article, we’re going to be looking at exactly that. Let’s see what the science says.

What is the Immune System?

Your immune system is the collection of processes throughout your body that helps you to fight infection, illness, and disease. It is your line of defence against microbes that have the power to make you unwell.

We refer to it as a ‘system’, because there is no single thing that is responsible for this job. Rather, your defence against disease is created by an ensemble of different cells, proteins, organs, and little mechanisms within organs too. Your tonsils, your lymph nodes, your spleen, bone marrow, and skin all contribute – alongside things in your gut and lungs. When any one of these organs or processes is compromised or impaired, problems can arise.

What is important to realise, though, is that the successful functioning of your immune system depends on the things that you consume and do throughout your life. Certain vitamins and minerals are essential for the system’s healthy function, and you need to consume the right amount of these to ensure the system is working at its best.

Similarly, getting the right amount of sleep and finding ways to manage stress is key too. Your immune system is not invulnerable to the unhealthy habits and activities that you might perform. Simply enough, it is part of your body too.

Does Alcohol Weaken the Immune System?

This is where the link between alcohol and the immune system comes in. Does alcohol lower your immune system? Yes – and it does so precisely because it impairs the functioning of the rest of your body.

Here, we’re going to look at four ways in which alcohol affects your immune system. Bear in mind, however, that this list is far from exhaustive.

Alcohol Impairs Immune Defence in the Gut

Your gastro-intestinal system – including your intestines, stomach, and bowels – is the first thing to which alcohol comes into contact after a drink. As a result, the alcohol can have a direct effect on its function.

Research has suggested that this affects your immune system in a number of ways. For example, alcohol seems to reduce the number of molecules that the cells in your intestine produce to fight bacteria. Other studies, meanwhile, suggest that it damages your gut’s physical mucus lining, meaning that your body is more vulnerable to be compromised by infection.

Gut inflammation is also increased by alcohol consumption. This is a natural immune response – yet, it shouldn’t be overactive. Inflammation causes pain, diarrhea, and inflammation – and, in some cases, bleeding.

Alcohol Damages Immune Cells in the Lungs Too

Whilst it is something more frequently associated with smoking, alcohol can cause damage to the lungs – particularly when you consume large quantities of it regularly. This impacts on your ability to fight disease.

Your respiratory tract and lungs contain millions of cilia, essentially tiny arms that wave to clear your airways of mucus, dirt, and bacteria. These play an important physical role in your immune system – as they prevent bacteria from taking root in your respiratory passage. 

Alcohol prevents them from working as they should – meaning that your lungs become more susceptible to infection. Medical research has shown that this increases the chances of pneumonia, tuberculosis, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Monocytes and Alcohol

Monocytes are a type of white blood cell, one of the most important single immune defences that we have. Produced from bone marrow and endlessly circulating in the blood and spleen, monocytes identify and signal the presence of pathogens – i.e. potentially harmful bacteria. Without monocytes, therefore, there is no immune response.

Unfortunately, though, researchers have found that monocytes affected by alcohol do not produce the chemical signals that they should in the presence of bacteria or viruses. This means that the immune response in general suffers.

Importantly, though, these results were found even in non-drinkers – meaning that the effects were not down to chronic consumption. Instead, moderate drinking was sufficient to have this effect. 

Sleep and Alcohol

Alongside the direct effects that alcohol has on the immune system, it can indirectly affect your immune system too. For example, alcohol consumption affects both the quality and quantity of sleep – variables that in turn influence the strength of your immune system.

Whilst it helps you to get to sleep, alcohol consumption disrupts your sleep cycle throughout the night. It reduces the time that you are in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, for example, and can cause you to wake up more.

During healthy sleep, your body releases cytokines, a type of protein that tackle bacteria and viruses. When you don’t sleep enough – or when your sleep is not of sufficient quality – you don’t produce as many of these proteins as you need. As a result, your ability to fight disease is weakened.

How Much Alcohol is Unhealthy?

The UK government’s current guidelines on alcohol consumption state that men and women should have no more than 14 units a week of alcohol. This means about six pints a week – or seven glasses of wine.

Interestingly enough, in recent years researchers have discovered that moderate consumption may actually boost your immune system. However, the reasons for this are not fully understood. As a result, it may still be best to cut down on your alcohol consumption if you want to boost your immune system.

Key Takeaways

Does alcohol lower your immune system? It does – in a number of ways, beginning at the substance’s direct effects on your lungs and gut. Beyond this, though, alcohol decreases the quality of your sleep too – which in turn affects the strength of your immune system.

Generally, then, it is best to keep alcohol consumption to a minimum. Try no more than six pints a week.

References

  1. Faraz Bishehsari, M.D., Ph.D., Emmeline Magno, M.D., Garth Swanson, M.D., Vishal Desai, M.D., Robin M. Voigt, Ph.D., Christopher B. Forsyth, Ph.D., and Ali Keshavarzian, M.D. (2017). Alcohol and Gut-Derived Inflammation:  ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513683/

  2. Alba Rocco, Debora Compare, Debora Angrisani, Marco Sanduzzi Zamparelli, Gerardo Nardone  (2014).Alcoholic disease: liver and beyond: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25356028/

  3. S Fleming, S Toratani, T Shea-Donohue, Y Kashiwabara, S N Vogel, E S Metcalf (2001). Pro- and anti-inflammatory gene expression in the murine small intestine and liver after chronic exposure to alcohol: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11329499/

  4. Fan Yang, Jacqueline Pavlik, Laura Fox, Chasity Scarbrough, Winfield S. Sale, Joseph H. Sisson and Maureen Wirschell (2001). Alcohol-induced ciliary dysfunction targets the outer dynein arm: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4360061/

  5. Gyongyi Szabo – Monocytes, Alcohol Use, and Altered Immunity: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1530-0277.1998.tb04005.x

  6. JAMES M. KRUEGER, JEANNINE A. MAJDE, and DAVID M. RECTOR (2017). Cytokines in immune function and sleep regulation: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5440845/

  7. NHS – People who drink above UK alcohol guidelines ‘lose one to two years of life’: https://www.nhs.uk/news/lifestyle-and-exercise/people-who-drink-above-uk-alcohol-guidelines-lose-one-two-years-life/

  8. Javier Romeo, Julia Wärnberg, Esther Nova, Ligia E Díaz, Sonia Gómez-Martinez, Ascensión Marcos (2007). Moderate alcohol consumption and the immune system: a review: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17922947/

While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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