People discovered fermentation and the techniques for producing alcohol thousands of years ago. Since then, alcoholic beverages have become a big part of culture and societies all over the world. People turn to them for celebrations, special occasions, and even religious ceremonies. You may use alcohol to relax and unwind at the end of a long day or as a method of coping with stress. Drinking alcohol, even in a small amount, can cause widespread effects on the body. Alcohol directly damages the liver, and it also has lasting effects on the small intestine and brain. You might be surprised to discover that alcohol’s effects on the immune system are also serious. Awareness of alcohol’s effects on the immune system could help you make informed decisions about your health and overall well-being.
How Much Alcohol Causes Immune System Dysfunction?
Alcohol is a chemical that causes cellular effects that disrupt immune system functions in your bloodstream, intestines, and throughout your body. Health researchers have demonstrated that heavy alcohol use, which is more than three drinks per day, leads to both short-term and long-term immune system dysfunction. However, even drinking a moderate amount of alcohol, such as one drink per day or two drinks on one evening once per week, can lead to immune system problems. Even consuming small amounts of alcohol once in a while, such as a glass of wine when going out to dinner, causes short-term suppression of your immune system.
Increased Susceptibility to Infections
A depleted immune system increases your susceptibility to all sorts of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. In your lungs, alcohol impairs the ability of your cilia to sweep bacteria, fungi, and viruses out of your lungs and airway. The cilia, which are like tiny hairs, move back and forth. In a person who doesn’t use alcohol, the cilia do an excellent job of clearing out germs before they have a chance to multiply. Alcohol reduces this movement and causes physical damage to the cilia. This allows the germs to get deep into your lungs, where they can reproduce and cause infections.
Short-term Immune Suppression
Even if you only consume one serving of alcohol and you do it just once in a while, you’re suppressing your immune system. Alcohol reduces your immune system’s ability to respond for up to 24 hours. If you have several drinks in one evening or engage in binge drinking, this short-term immune suppression is more severe, and it may last for several days.
More Severe Illnesses
Once harmful microorganisms get a chance to settle into your lungs and start reproducing, alcohol impairs your immune system’s ability to find and destroy them. Most bacteria divide every two hours or even faster, so, within just one or two days, you could have a raging infection. This leads to more severe illnesses. When you consume alcoholic beverages, you may require more antiviral or antibiotic medications to fight off the germs. People who overuse alcohol are more likely to need hospitalization in order to recover from an infection.
Delayed Response to Fighting Infections
As soon as you take just one sip of an alcoholic beverage, your body prioritizes metabolizing the alcohol. Because your body can’t store alcohol like it stores fats and carbohydrates, it has to immediately metabolize it. This metabolism happens in the liver. Your liver also makes immune factors for getting rid of infections, produces key proteins that circulate in your blood plasma, and removes bacteria from your blood. If your liver is already overworked processing alcohol, it can’t perform these important immune functions.
Illnesses Last Longer
When you use alcohol, any infections or other illnesses you get could last longer than they would in a person who doesn’t drink alcohol. Illnesses last longer because your immune system’s ability to detect and eliminate invaders is depleted. The common cold, which lasts for one to two weeks in an otherwise healthy person, may last for twice as long in a person who drinks excessive amounts of alcohol.
Development of Unusual Infections
The healthier and stronger your immune system is, the better and faster it can deal with common and unusual germs. When your immune system and the cells of your lungs are damaged, your body can’t get rid of the germs. Drinking alcohol may lead to you getting sick with bacterial or viral infections that a person with a healthy immune system could easily clear. For example, pneumonia caused by Pneumocystis jirovecii, is rare in people with properly functioning immune systems. When your immune system is damaged from excessive alcohol use and other conditions, this unusual fungal pneumonia can become a life-threatening illness.
More Complications from Infections
Drinking alcohol may lead to more complications from infections. When your immune system struggles to get rid of harmful microorganisms, those organisms have more time to damage your cells, tissues, and organs. In people who contract COVID-19, alcohol use is associated with worse symptoms and an increase in the risk for hospitalization and invasive procedures, such as intubation. When an infection lingers and causes more damage, a person is more likely to end up with long-term complications, such as breathing disorders or heart damage.
Poor Response to Antibiotics and Antiviral Medications
Alcohol may dampen your body’s ability to respond to antibiotics and antiviral medicines when you’re sick. When your immune system takes a long time to identify an invader and respond to it, the invader can do more damage. By this time, infections can become serious or life-threatening. They can also mutate and evolve into more serious strains that are resistant to antibiotics or antiviral medications. If the infection is bacterial, the first-line antibiotics may not help. Doctors may have to treat a person with multiple medications or use more invasive procedures to treat the infection. Some people may never fully recover.
Impaired Sleep Quality
Alcohol interferes with your ability to sleep. People who overuse alcohol sleep fewer hours, and their quality of sleep is poor. The quality of sleep is worse, too. You may not reach the crucial stage of deep restorative sleep. Your immune system does much of its housekeeping work while you sleep. Without the right quantity and quality of sleep, your body won’t have the time or energy to fight off invaders.
Alcohol causes inflammation throughout your body. Its effects are worst in the lungs and small intestine. Much of your immune system resides in your small intestine. When your intestinal tract is inflamed, your immune system can’t do its job of eliminating harmful bacteria from your food or keeping the numbers of other potentially dangerous microorganisms in check. When your lungs are inflamed, you produce more mucus and fluid. The mucus impairs your immune system’s ability to detect viruses, fungi, and bacteria in your lungs. The thick mucus and fluid also interfere with your immune system’s ability to clear those pathogens before they have a chance to enter your bloodstream.
Reduction of Beneficial Bacteria
Your skin and intestines are home to billions of beneficial bacteria. Those organisms help you process nutrients. They also out-compete dangerous bacteria, which helps you stay healthy. Alcohol use kills the healthy bacteria in your body. This gives dangerous bacteria an opportunity to take over and cause you to develop serious infections.
Alcohol affects every part of your body, including your immune system. When your immune system isn’t working properly, you’re at risk for more frequent and severe infections, illnesses that last longer, and complications from illnesses that are mild in people who don’t consume alcohol. By reducing your alcohol intake and seeking professional help if you overuse or abuse alcohol, you can reduce or even reverse some of the alcohol’s effects on immune system functioning.