Heavy drinkers may at times suspect that alcohol use is having an effect on their immune system.  It is common for drinkers to notice that colds, cases of flu, and other illnesses often follow a drinking binge.  Of course, alcohol can’t introduce a virus into your system on its own, but excessive exposure to alcohol may lower your immune system enough to prevent your body from fighting off an invading virus.  Science has only recently confirmed a relationship between alcohol and the body’s ability to ward off disease. For those that have developed an addiction to alcohol and tend to drink in excess, whether daily or in binge patterns, the effect on the immune system should be a serious concern, due to both short-term and long-term implications.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School conducted an experiment in which they exposed white blood cells, cells that fight off illness, to viruses and bacteria.  Half of the cells were also exposed to alcohol levels equivalent to a week of heavy drinking. The intoxicated cells were found to have a quarter of the efficiency in fighting off bacteria and viruses than the “sober” cells. The results of this study and others like it are not limited to consequences surrounding our susceptibility to the common cold.  Research suggests that alcohol use can leave us more vulnerable than non-drinkers to HIV, cancer, and a number of other infectious diseases. There are several factors involved in a heavy drinker’s lowered immune response. Alcohol doesn’t do just one damaging thing to the body, but instead interacts with many of the body’s functions in complex and interrelated ways, causing the body to lose efficiency overall.  

One way that alcohol interacts with the body’s natural balance to create immune-damaging effects is by wreaking havoc on the digestive system.  When a person drinks alcohol, the first parts of the body that come into contact with their drink are the organs involved in digestion. The body’s gastrointestinal system contains a delicate balance of microbial organisms that aid in digestion and are responsible for absorbing vital nutrients from our food.  Introducing alcohol into the digestive system disrupts this balance and damages the cells that build a barrier between your gut and the rest of your body. This means that while alcohol is interfering with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and maintain balance in the gut, it is also allowing microbes that should remain in the gut to leak into other areas of the body.  Research in recent years has continued to confirm the link between gut health and an efficient immune system. Alcohol has long been connected with gastrointestinal issues and damage, but we are now beginning to discover how this damage can lead to disease vulnerability.  

Another concerning link has been found between alcohol use and respiratory illness.  People with alcohol use disorder are more likely to develop illnesses in their lungs such as pneumonia, respiratory infections, and tuberculosis.  Again, this is happening because of alcohol’s effect on the specific cells responsible for the body’s immune response. These pulmonary issues are seen more frequently in people with addictions to alcohol because their bodies are no longer able to fight off a developing disease or infection as well as someone who does not drink in excess, or at all.  Not only are chronic drinkers more likely to develop many of these illnesses, but in some cases, they are also more likely to die as a result. For example, in the case of pneumonia, the body’s natural response to the first sign of this infection is to deploy neutrophils, cells that fight bacteria-induced inflammation. Multiple studies have confirmed that alcohol impairs the body’s neutrophil response, making it difficult to fight off pneumonia and heightening the risk of death as a result.

When it comes to cold and flu viruses, most of the research concerning alcohol’s effect on immunity is limited.  There is, however, much in the way of anecdotal evidence suggesting that binge drinking lowers the immune system significantly enough to create a window of heightened virus vulnerability.  One study that sought to observe the immediate effects of one binge drinking session on the immune system found that even one night of heavy drinking did, in fact, result in a temporary depletion of the body’s first line of defense.  Unfortunately, many people who binge drink don’t identify as having alcohol use disorder and may be under the false assumption that they aren’t causing significant harm to their bodies if they are sober most days. The research is continuing to confirm, however, that binge drinking can be detrimental to physical and mental health, including the inhibition of immune responses.  

It is well known that alcohol ravages the body, but many people are still unaware of how, and to what extent.  While this knowledge may be helpful in preventing substance abuse, it can take a quality treatment program and the assistance of experts to quit drinking once an addiction has already developed.  If you believe you or someone you love has developed an addiction to alcohol, now is the time to ask for help. At Burning Tree, you will find knowledgeable and compassionate professionals that structure treatment to fit individual needs, including the identification of co-occurring disorders.  Through accountability and commitment to the 12 steps, each client will develop the tools to create a sober lifestyle and find lasting recovery. We specialize in the treatment of chronic relapsers and believe with the right support you can experience true and permanent healing. For more information, call us now at  866-287-2877