The late comedian Henny Youngman once said that when he read about the evils of drinking, he gave up reading. It’s up to you which way you want to go, but hopefully it doesn’t come as a surprise that we recommend you keep reading.
Whether you work from home and hit the bottle regularly, or go all out once every couple of months, it’s worth knowing the effects that alcohol can have on the human body—especially when it comes to the immune system.
As a highly complex mechanism, the immune system is severely affected by consuming even moderate amounts of booze, so it’s probably best to avoid it if you’re in an area with flu season approaching. But if we haven’t completely turned you off reading yet, rest assured that we’ll include some immune-boosting tips towards the end in case you’re just not ready to give up the sauce.
We’ll be talking about drinks throughout this article, so it’s best to get on the same page on what constitutes an alcoholic “drink.” Each one of these is considered one drink:
And how much of these drinks is too much?
The CDC defines heavy drinking as having 8 drinks of alcohol per week for women and 15 drinks for men, while binge drinking is 4 drinks for women and 5 for men (in one sitting). Moderate drinking, also defined by the CDC, is considered to be one drink per day for women and two per day for men. How do you fit into this?
What we call alcohol is technically termed “ethanol”—being only one variation of a group of alcohol compounds. However, only ethanol is safe to drink. And do we ever drink it.
It’s one of the most common and one of the oldest recreational substances (almost 10,000 years of humans drinking), causing mood lifts, decreased anxiety, increasing one’s sociability, and impairing things like cognitive, motor, and sensory function. All in all, a pretty fun time if it’s your cup of tea.
The main mechanism that alcohol’s effects work through is by boosting the effects of a certain neurotransmitter in the brain. The more this neurotransmitter is activated, the more your central nervous system is suppressed. Booze also affects other neurotransmitter systems, such as serotonin, glycine, and glutamate. The pleasant boozy feelings are caused primarily by the release of dopamine, while the unpleasant feelings are partly due to the by-product of acetaldehyde.
But despite its long history and widespread use, it’s generally regarded as a vice. Let’s find out why.
It’s generally regarded as not a good thing. In fact, there’s a wide consensus that it’s mostly a very bad thing for the human body. This goes double for someone whose brain is still developing or is pregnant.
Short term effects of alcohol are usually dizziness or nausea, and it can be addictive. In worst-case scenarios, overconsumption of alcohol can kill someone.
However, we’re more interested in the long-term effects of alcohol. One of the most well-known victims of alcohol is the liver, for example.
Your liver is part of your body’s system for detoxification. It removes alcohol from your blood through the process of oxidation, and once the boozy blood has been processed the alcohol turns into water and carbon dioxide. However, drinking too much has detrimental effects on the liver since there’s an inhibition of fat oxidation in the organ.
This is known as fatty liver, and it’s an early stage of alcoholic liver disease. How common is it? About 90% of people who drink moderately to heavily every single day have fatty liver.
And while fatty liver is reversible within weeks to months, it does lead to more serious liver issues further down the road.
Furthermore, regularly drinking can also significantly alter your gut microbiome negatively. Your gut flora is closely tied with an immune system that works well and your overall health as well. That’s why it’s important to include probiotics in your diet since they help to maintain a healthy and flourishing culture of healthy bacteria within your body. And if that wasn’t enough bad news for your gut, alcohol can also weaken the lining of the stomach, causing microorganisms to enter the flesh.
Furthermore, alcohol puts people at a higher risk of developing blood pressure problems. Heart issues can go even further with the development of cardiomyopathy (a weakened heart) or arrhythmias (an irregular heartbeat).
Drinking heavily and regularly can also have negative effects on your pancreas since it can become chronically inflamed if alcohol is abused. The abuse of alcohol can even put you in a much higher chance of getting certain forms of cancer, such as esophagus, mouth, breast, liver, and throat cancers.
While we’ve touched on certain things that relate to immune function, there’s a host of specifics we can get into.
And spoiler alert: the specifics don’t place alcohol abuse in that good of a light.
But it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Alcohol—and especially heavy alcohol usage—affects pretty much all of our bodies to some extent. The immune system is also tied to almost every part of our bodies, in some way as well. The far-reaching effects of boozing it up too much are undoubtedly going to harm the delicate balance of our immune function.
A lot of foods and nutrients that are good for your immune system have anti-inflammatory properties—and unfortunately, alcohol does just the opposite.
Inflammation refers to your body’s response when an invader enters and triggers the immune system. As the name suggests, this suggests swelling.
Like we mentioned above, alcohol disrupting the balance of good bacteria in the gut leads to an inflammation of the stomach, small intestines, liver, and pancreas. Chronic inflammation can be the cause of or lead to several deadly illnesses.
And when inflammation occurs and there are no healthy gut bacteria to fight off infection, then it’s much easier to become sick. But that’s not where the bad news ends.
While the inflammatory response is a key piece of the immune system, alcohol affects the system in more direct ways as well.
One of these ways is through the lungs, for example. Drinking alcohol can damage the immune cells and hairs in your airways that are meant to clear pathogens that you breathe in. If they’re not there or aren’t functioning up to par, then the pathogen isn’t stopped.
Some research has shown that alcoholic substance abuse can lead to more severe lung diseases, such as adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Other diseases are also included in this increased susceptibility, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and respiratory infections.
And there’s even more bad news for your immune system.
It’s also been suggested that binge drinking can reduce the number of monocytes (white blood cells) in the body. These are absolutely necessary for fighting off bacteria, viruses, and infections. These diminished numbers of white blood cells can even last up to five hours after a period of binge drinking.
If we throw back enough shots, seldom are we able to remember or even know what’s going on around us. And it’s not so different inside of the body’s immune system either.
Since alcohol is a toxin, drinking it will make sure that your body is putting all of its focus on it and cleaning it out of your system. See the problem?
Since there’s a limited amount of resources that your immune system has to fight off invaders, most of these resources will end up being caught up with the alcohol—rather than the illness. This also means that if your body is already sick, it can have a significantly more difficult time fighting off the invaders already inside the body.
Part of the reason is that your body doesn’t have a way to store booze, unlike nutrients such as fats and carbs. So, the alcohol has to be sent directly to the liver which ties up precious disease-fighting resources.
Alcohol has also been found to impair the quality of one’s sleep. While you might think your body is already “distracted” when it’s asleep, alcohol makes this much worse.
A lack of sleep has been found to correlate significantly with increased chances of developing the common cold, for example. But a lack of sleep has far-reaching effects outside of even the immune system, and it’ll most likely affect every aspect of your health. And if you’re already sick, not getting enough sleep can also make it more difficult to recover.
As we outlined before, alcohol can cause some pleasant feelings to occur, such as euphoria, pleasure, and ease feelings of anxiety. You can probably guess by now that this doesn’t paint the full picture.
And we’re not even talking about the post-blackout memories that fill you with regret—alcohol has more insidious effects on our brain chemistry.
Excessive alcohol consumption can cause depression and anxiety, and it can also worsen pre-existing mental illnesses. While this doesn’t directly flow into the whole immune system theme, it does have far-reaching effects.
Depression, for example, does affect the immune system to a high degree. It can both suppress immune function and it’s also been associated with autoimmune diseases and heart disease. Anxiety has similar effects—especially on immune function.
If you’re stressed, your body has a much more difficult time preventing illness and/or fighting it off. That’s why it’s recommended to allow me-time for an immune system that functions up to par. This is why things like fresh air, exercise, and participating in enjoyable activities are great ways to boost immune response.
And while alcohol might offer some short-term relaxation and unwinding, it’s one of the worst crutches to use over the long term.
Along with affecting the way your body actively fights off pathogens, drinking too much alcohol (alcohol use disorder) over a long time can have disastrously negative consequences on your overall health.
Not to mention like increasing the chances of getting cancer, liver disease, and heart disease, there’s a host of other illnesses that range in severity. Nevertheless, it’s best to avoid all of them.
Some of these include leaky bowel syndrome, cirrhosis of the liver, and gastrointestinal cancer—all of which you’d do well to avoid.
So, how does one avoid these things?
The natural answer is to avoid alcohol, but that’s obviously not something everyone is willing to do. But what about moderating intake?
As we brought up at the beginning, moderate drinking is considered to be one drink per day for women and two for men—this is according to the CDC.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that shows that even drinking in moderation can have pitfalls for one’s health. There are some groups that should steer clear entirely.
Individuals who take certain over-the-counter or prescription medications should completely avoid alcohol. This obviously depends on the exact compound being taken, but it’s something to be very wary of. Those who are too young and whose brains are still developing should also avoid the substance, as tempting as it might be.
Pregnant women also fall into the demographic of people who should not drink alcohol at all. And when it comes to breastfeeding, a doctor should be consulted before going ahead with it.
If you’re still not sold on the idea of limiting your alcohol intake by the CDC’s guidelines, there are other ways that one can do damage control.
For one, liquor (around 40% or higher) is obviously a big no-no. While low in calories compared to other alcoholic beverages, its high alcohol percentage makes it a not-so-good choice if you’re looking to keep your immune system healthy.
There is some evidence that shows that beer and wine can potentially have immune-boosting effects due to their polyphenolic content—but this is far from an open invitation from the scientific community to start downing glasses of wine instead of vitamins.
And if you just need to indulge in some hard liquor after a difficult week, there are definitely better and worse choices when it comes to mixed drinks.
Take, for example, the Bloody Mary cocktail.
While it’s best to make it virgin, that’s not what this article is about. But even with its inclusion of vodka, its ingredients of tomato juice, lemon juice, hot sauce, and horseradish can provide a boost to your immune system.
Tomatoes are packed with vitamins and they’re a good antioxidant food. Furthermore, they’re one of the best sources of lycopene in the world—a nutrient that’s been tied to enhanced immunity and even cancer risk reduction.
The lemon juice provides one of the best vitamins for boosting the immune system—vitamin C. Any sort of citrus is a good way to go when you’re looking to decrease your chances of getting sick. Horseradish is also a sure-fire way to give your immunity an extra boost. It’s known as an analgesic with antibiotic properties and can even fight the common cold.
As you can see, there are options and it’s not as black and white as either quitting drinking or quitting reading. Here are a few more tips for making sure your body’s protected next flu season.
We began with a quote so it’s fitting that we end with one as well. This one from none other than Benjamin Franklin; “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.”
But while the sentiment may have rung true back then, staying hydrated with clean sources of water (no caffeine, sugar, and especially no alcohol), is one of the best ways to make sure your immune system is functioning in tip-top shape.
Your diet is also exceptionally important. Without good sources of nutrients, your immune system won’t have the minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients it needs to maintain a well-defended body. And while we included mention of the Bloody Mary, it’s probably for the best you don’t get the majority of your nutrients from cocktails.
Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin D are especially important for those living in the Northern hemisphere, where days get much shorter in the winter months. Vitamin D is linked to how much sun our bodies get, and so it’s ironic that the winter months of drinking are also those where many people are deficient in an immune-boosting vitamin.
Add to this mix the ingredient of “plenty of sleep and exercise” and you’ve got a recipe for an immune system that’ll (hopefully) be able to ward off anything that tries to get in.
Avoiding alcohol is the best way to go—but managing that vice is going to be up to you.