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Alcohol and Health

Alcohol's Impact on the Immune System

June 25, 2023
23 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 25, 2023
23 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 25, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 25, 2023
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Reframe Content Team
June 25, 2023
23 min read

It's a Tuesday evening, not a Friday, but hey, who's counting? You've wrapped up another day of work, and as you flop into your favorite armchair, you fancy a glass of your go-to red. You pour the rich, robust vino, and with the first sip, it's like a mini vacation. Ah, bliss!

But then the next day … what a bummer. You wake up with a sore throat, cough, and maybe even a fever. What gives? Does alcohol weaken your immune system — or, more precisely, does alcohol lower your immune system’s ability to fight off infections? Unfortunately, yes — alcohol, especially when it’s consumed regularly over a long time, can do a number on the immune system. In fact, a single session of 5 to 6 drinks has been shown to shut down the immune system for as long as 24 hours, leaving us open to catching anything from the common cold to a more serious disease!

The Ins and Outs of the Immune System

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Before we get into alcohol and immune system interactions, let's get the lowdown on our immune system itself. It has an army of cells and proteins ever-ready to battle villains such as bacteria and viruses. Here’s how it works:

  • First line of defense. Before invaders even reach our internal systems, they encounter physical barriers such as the skin and mucous membranes (like those inside the nose or throat). These act as physical walls that repel or trap potential threats.
  • Innate immunity: the rapid responders. If a pathogen gets past our initial barriers, our innate immune system jumps into action. Consisting of white blood cells — neutrophils and macrophages — this system responds quickly to invaders. It doesn't target specific pathogens, instead acting broadly against any perceived threats.
  • Adaptive immunity: the elite force. Unlike the rapid, non-specific innate response, the adaptive immune system is tailored to specific threats. It's slower to activate, but once it does, it's incredibly precise. Central to this system are T-cells, which target infected cells, and B-cells, which produce antibodies that neutralize specific pathogens. Once they've dealt with a particular invader, some of these cells become “memory cells,” ensuring a faster, more effective response if the same threat is encountered again.
  • Communication network. The immune system isn't just about cells attacking invaders. It relies heavily on chemical signals, such as cytokines and interferons, to communicate, coordinate, and amplify the immune response.
  • Regulation and balance. Equally crucial is the immune system's ability to regulate itself. After clearing an infection, the immune system needs to switch off, reducing its activity to prevent damage to the body. Regulatory cells play an essential role in this, ensuring our immune response is neither too weak nor too strong.

Alcohol and Immunity: An Overview

How does alcohol affect immune system functioning? — when alcohol enters the scene, it can potentially derail our superhero squad, wreaking havoc in the immune system and undermining its effectiveness.

Alcohol — just like everything else we ingest — gets metabolized in our body. It's primarily processed in the liver, which works tirelessly to detoxify and cleanse our system.

Why does this matter for our immune system? Because our body sees alcohol as a toxin, something dangerous to remove as quickly as possible, the liver prioritizes processing it above everything else. While our liver is dealing with alcohol, it has less energy and resources to support our immunity, leaving us more susceptible.

But that’s not the whole story — let’s dig a bit deeper and find out more!

Alcohol vs. Innate Immunity: Round One

First, let's talk about our innate immunity — the frontline of our immune system. When we throw back a shot or sip a cocktail, it can mess with our immune cells’ ability to effectively deal with invading pathogens. So, that cold or flu we're trying to fight off might stick around longer than it would have if we'd skipped that drink.

Here’s what happens in more detail:

  • Immediate effects. As soon as alcohol enters our system, it mingles with our immune cells, distracting them from their main task. When our immune cells are sidetracked, they're less efficient at identifying and dealing with real threats, such as bacteria and viruses.
  • Inflammation triggers. In addition to diverting our immune cells, alcohol can also cause inflammation within hours of consumption. Inflammation is the body's way of responding to injuries or harmful elements, but in the case of alcohol, it's more of a false alarm.
  • Barrier breach. Our skin and mucous membranes (like those in our nose and mouth) are part of our innate immunity. They serve as physical barriers, keeping harmful pathogens out. However, excessive alcohol can weaken them, allowing invaders easier access.

While enjoying a single drink might not sound the alarms throughout the entire immune system, even moderate drinking can extend the time it takes your body to recover from illnesses. How does drinking lower your immune system’s ability to defend you against diseases? That cold that should've been gone in three days? It lingers for a week or more. The flu that should've lasted a week? It stays for almost twice as long. This is our immune system, compromised and lagging, all because alcohol distracted our guards.

Alcohol vs. Adaptive Immunity: Round Two

Then comes round two: alcohol versus our adaptive immunity. This part of our immune system learns and adapts to specific threats. The adaptive immunity system is our body's elite force, specialized and refined through experience. Unlike the innate immunity, which reacts instantly to all invaders, the adaptive immune system has a memory. It recalls past encounters with specific pathogens, enabling it to swiftly and effectively target these familiar foes. But when alcohol enters our body, this elite force faces significant challenges:

  • Memory malfunction. A primary function of our adaptive immune system is its remarkable ability to remember specific pathogens. Once our body encounters a particular virus or bacteria, it keeps a record of it, ensuring a faster response upon subsequent exposures. However, alcohol can impair this memory retention. Alcohol hampers our body's ability to track and quickly respond to previously encountered threats.
  • T-cell trouble. T-cells are a pivotal component of our adaptive immunity. They detect and eliminate infected cells, and over time, some of them transform into memory T-cells, ensuring a rapid response to future infections. Alcohol can stifle the production and function of these T-cells. This suppression leaves us vulnerable to infections we've previously battled.
  • B-cell blues. While T-cells tackle infected cells directly, B-cells produce antibodies that neutralize pathogens. When we’re vaccinated against a disease, our B-cells produce antibodies specific to the antigens introduced by the vaccine, granting us immunity. Regular alcohol consumption, however, can reduce the number and efficiency of B-cells, hindering antibody production. Under alcohol's influence, the production line slows down or churns out faulty equipment.
  • Communication breakdown. One of the hallmarks of our adaptive immune system is the seamless communication between its various components. When alcohol is in play, this communication can be disrupted, resulting in confusion that can delay or even misdirect our body's response to threats.

Considering all these disruptions, it's no surprise that alcohol slows the adaptive immune response. Instead of swiftly recognizing and counteracting a known threat, our system stumbles, taking longer to rally its defenses.

While a single drink might not dismantle our defenses, consistent and excessive consumption can dull the sharp edge of our adaptive immunity, leaving us more susceptible to infections and reducing the efficiency of vaccinations.

The Plot Thickens

As we've seen, alcohol can hinder the work of our innate and adaptive immunity. But there’s more! Booze doesn't stop at just hampering our immune response — it can even misdirect it.

  • False alarms and friendly fire. When alcohol infiltrates our system, it can trigger an inappropriate immune response, even when there's no actual threat present. Our immune cells target our body's own cells — because they mistook them for threats. Doesn’t sound great, does it?
    Sleep patterns disturbed due to excessive alcohol consumption can lead to an imbalance in the levels of these hormones: ghrelin levels go up, making us hungrier and more prone to create and store fat; leptin levels, which could help mitigate the increased ghrelin, plummet. This imbalance can lead to increased hunger and subsequent overeating and weight gain.
  • Overzealous defenders. When the immune system is triggered without the presence of a real threat, it doesn't just stop at attacking our body's cells. The overreaction can lead to chronic inflammation, paving the way for a plethora of health issues ranging from diabetes to cardiovascular diseases.
  • Chemical chaos. But why does alcohol trigger these unwarranted responses in the first place? It comes down to how alcohol affects our body's chemical signaling. These signals, which should be clear directives, become jumbled and misleading under alcohol's influence.
  • Ripple effect on other systems. The immune system doesn't operate in isolation. Its responses, especially when misled by alcohol, can have repercussions on other systems in our body. For instance, an overactive immune response can affect our neurological system, leading to mood alterations or cognitive impairments.

The Bottle and Bacteria

Here's another twist: our gut, which plays a key role in maintaining our immune system, also bears the brunt of our alcohol consumption. The gut microbiota — a whole universe of bacteria that call our intestines home — plays a crucial role in keeping us healthy.

As it turns out, alcohol interacts directly with these little residents in a way that can lead to a cascade of health issues. By disrupting the balance of good and bad bacteria, alcohol leads to something called "leaky gut." And — as you might guess — stuff leaking from your gut is bad news: it leads to harmful substances sneaking into the bloodstream, like toxins from the sewer leaking into our water supply. What's more, it can trigger our immune system to respond, which can lead to chronic inflammation, a condition associated with a host of health problems, from arthritis to heart disease.

Examining Gut Health

When Alcohol Becomes a Long-term Gatecrasher

And what if alcohol becomes a regular guest, week after week, year after year? Well, things get even worse: long-term heavy drinking can leave our immune system in a perpetual state of confusion and disarray, making us more susceptible to infections and even cancer. Yikes!

On the flip side, our bodies are amazing and are capable of making remarkable recoveries. How long does it take for the immune system to recover from alcohol misuse? It depends on our overall health, but recovery starts as soon as we quit or cut back.

Back in Charge

Now that we know how problematic alcohol can be for our immune system, let's talk about how we can show it the door — or at least keep it in check.

  • Cap the booze. Decide on a set number of drinks you'll have in a week — and stick to it. (The drink tracking feature of the Reframe app can help with this!)
  • Alcohol sabbaticals. Have specific days in your week when you don't drink at all. This allows our immune system to reset as alcohol leaves our body.
  • The slow dance. Who said you have to chug down your drink? Sip it slowly and savor the experience.
  • H2O is the way to go. Keep hydrated with water or other non-alcoholic drinks in between your alcoholic ones.
  • Savor the moment, not the drink. Focus more on the quality of your relaxation time rather than the quantity of alcohol.

As for supporting your immune system, here are some more specific tips:

  • Balanced diet. Consume a varied diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Prioritize foods rich in antioxidants and vitamin C such as berries, citrus fruits, and leafy greens. Incorporate sources of zinc, selenium, and vitamin E, such as nuts, seeds, and seafood.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day. Limit consumption of sugary drinks and sodas. Herbal teas like green tea or ginger tea are great for supporting the immune system!.
  • Regular exercise. Engage in moderate aerobic exercise for at least 150 minutes a week. Include strength training in your routine. Remember to stretch regularly and consider activities like yoga or pilates.
  • Adequate sleep. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Establish a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Create a bedtime routine to wind down, such as reading or meditating.
  • Manage stress. Incorporate relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, or journaling. Set aside regular “me time” for activities you enjoy. 
  • Good hygiene practices. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your elbow when coughing or sneezing. Regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • Stay updated with vaccinations. Ensure you’re up-to-date with all recommended vaccines. Get the annual flu shot and other vaccines as recommended by healthcare professionals.
  • Limit Intake of added sugars and processed foods. Read nutrition labels to check for hidden sugars. Opt for natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup in moderation. Prioritize whole foods over packaged or processed options.
  • Probiotics and gut health. Consume fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi to support a healthy gut microbiome. Consider a probiotic supplement after consulting with a healthcare professional.
  • Limit exposure to toxins. Reduce exposure to harmful chemicals at home or work. Use natural cleaning products when possible. Ensure your living space is well-ventilated.
  • Regular check-ups. Schedule routine medical check-ups to detect potential issues early. Discuss any concerns or changes in your health with a healthcare professional.

Summing Up

Just like all of our other bodily systems, our immune system needs a bit of care and consideration to function at its best. You need to find the balance that lets you enjoy your life without compromising your body's defenses.

As author and neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar explains, “Symptoms of a sickness are not necessarily signs of weakness, rather they imply that your body is actively fighting the sickness. And when all the resources of the body fall short to fight the sickness, that's when the real trouble begins.” Let’s give our bodies the opportunity to use the amazing resources that have evolved to keep us in top shape.

Summary FAQs

1. How does alcohol affect our immune system?

Alcohol, when consumed regularly and in excess, can weaken the immune system. It can interfere with the immune system's ability to fight off pathogens, reduce the production and function of immune cells, and even trigger inappropriate immune responses.

2. What role does the liver play in relation to alcohol and our immunity?

The liver primarily processes and detoxifies alcohol. When it's busy handling alcohol, it has less energy and resources to support immunity, potentially leaving the body more vulnerable to infections.

3. How does alcohol impact our body's first line of defense against pathogens?

Alcohol can suppress our innate immunity, which serves as the body's frontline defense. This means infections like colds or the flu might last longer if alcohol has been consumed, as the immune cells' ability to combat these pathogens is hampered.

4. What's the difference between the effects of alcohol on innate immunity and adaptive immunity?

Alcohol disrupts both. While it can suppress the rapid, non-specific responses of innate immunity, it also interferes with the adaptive immunity's specialized responses. For adaptive immunity, alcohol can cause miscommunication among cells and reduce the immune system's ability to remember and counteract specific threats.

5. Why is chronic inflammation concerning in relation to alcohol consumption?

Chronic inflammation is an overreaction of the immune system, even when no real threat is present. Alcohol can trigger such unwarranted responses, leading to chronic inflammation, which is associated with various health issues, from arthritis to heart disease.

6. How does alcohol affect the gut's role in immunity?

Alcohol can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. This imbalance can lead to a "leaky gut," where harmful substances enter the bloodstream, triggering immune responses and potentially leading to chronic inflammation.

7. What are some actionable steps to manage alcohol's impact on the immune system?

Some recommendations include setting a limit on weekly alcohol consumption, taking regular alcohol sabbaticals, sipping drinks slowly, staying hydrated, and focusing more on relaxation quality rather than the quantity of alcohol consumed.

Ready To Boost Your Immune System and Re-examine Your Relationship With Alcohol? Reframe Is Here To Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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