Does alcohol weaken the immune system? If you’re asking this question, chances are you’ve got some concerns that drinking alcohol could be damaging your immune system.
And, you’re not wrong for thinking this.
If you’ve ever been on a big night out or been drinking a few days in a row on holiday, you may have noticed that you become unwell more quickly.
The simple answer to the question, does alcohol weaken the immune system?, is yes. It definitely does.
In this article, we aim to cover all the ways in which alcohol can weaken your immune system. We’ll also give you some tips to help support your body, in order to bounce back from a weakened immune system.
Does does alcohol weaken the immune system?
Your immune system consists of various different types of white blood cells that work together to fight infection. And alcohol is known to disrupt the health of these immune cells as well as alter the way these cells signal to one another.(1)
So it’s no surprise that a link between a weakened immune system and alcohol is well-recognized in the medical world.
Chronic alcohol use is associated with more severe viral and bacterial infections, as well as increased risk of developing certain cancers to mention a few.
And it’s not just chronic alcohol use that is a problem. Binge drinking has also been shown to significantly affect your immune system.(2)
The CDC defines binge drinking as having more than 5 drinks in a two hour period for men and more than 4 drinks for women.(3) And for many people, this is a standard number of drinks that you may have on a normal Saturday night.
So, the simple answer to the question: does alcohol weaken the immune system? Is yes!
Next up, we’ll look into all the different ways that alcohol has been shown to weaken the immune system.
How does alcohol weaken the immune system?
Before we start this section, it’s important for us to highlight that drinking in moderation, meaning within the recommended national limits is unlikely to affect your immune system. So, if you’re someone who drinks a glass of wine with a meal a few times a week, the impact it’s having on your immune system is not something you should worry about.
Therefore, most of the ways in which alcohol weakens the immune system are linked to chronic and regular binge drinking. And the main driving force behind this all is inflammation.
Alcohol is a toxin that is metabolized by your liver to produce even more toxins. This means that alcohol both directly and indirectly fuels inflammatory pathways.
Alcohol irritates the stomach and intestinal lining which causes inflammation locally (more on this later). Alcohol is then broken down in your liver to produce by-products such as acetaldehyde which is a highly volatile substance that reacts with your cells.
In fact, inflammation associated with chronic acetaldehyde exposure has been linked to several cancers.(4)
Furthermore, the inflammation associated with excessive alcohol consumption has been shown to reduce the number of certain immune cells as well as disrupt how these cells communicate with one another.(5)
Need something to help you bounce back after drinking?*
Sleep is often an overlooked aspect of immune health. Your natural body clock has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to work in line with a circadian rhythm. This means that hormones are secreted in different amounts depending on the time of day. Whether you’re fully rested or not also has a big impact on hormonal release systems.
Alcohol significantly disrupts your sleep by preventing you from reaching the REM stage. This is the stage of sleep that allows your body to rest and reset after a long day. Regular drinking has a big impact on your sleep quality and can leave you feeling tired even if you’ve had your normal hours of sleep.
And studies have shown poor sleep negatively impacts your immune health by stimulating the release of stress hormones.(6)
In chronic alcohol use, studies have shown that alcohol impairs the guts structural integrity. This means that the stomach and intestinal lining is more permeable to toxins and bacteria that are otherwise meant to stay out of your bloodstream.(5)
In essence, alcohol reduces the bond between cells of your gut lining which “leaks” unwanted toxins and organisms into your bloodstream. And this has been linked to increased levels of inflammation as well as a contributing factor to alcohol-induced liver injury.
In summary, alcohol does weaken your system by promoting inflammation, reducing immune cell function and reducing gut lining integrity. That said, these changes are seen in long term regular alcohol use and binge drinking.
How long does it take to recover from a weakened immune system caused by alcohol?
Chronic alcohol use causes “subclinical” immunosuppression. This means that the reduction in immune function can’t be easily measured by blood tests.
This means that the weakened immune system only becomes clinically relevant after a “secondary insult” (e.g a bacterial or viral infection). Therefore, measuring how long it takes to recover from a weakened immune system is more tricky than it sounds.
In general, the longer you remain abstinent from drinking, the better chance you have of your immune system returning back to its baseline.
How to boost immunity back to normal
Are you someone who gets sick after a big night out? Need to try and boost your immune system back to full health? Next up, we’ll go over all the things you need to do to ensure your immune system bounces back from its weakened state.
Aside from stopping drinking and eating a healthy balanced diet, here are the things you can do to support your immune system:
The effect of exercising on your immune system is profound. It’s been proven to boost your immune system and reduce the risk of infections.(6)
Some of the ways it does so is by:
- rejuvenating exhausted white blood cells.
- Increasing how fast immune cells divide.
- Lowers levels of inflammation.
- Increases the fighting power of white blood cells.
You may want to avoid exercise if you’re feeling hungover after a big night out. But once, you’ve recovered from your hangover, you can get straight back on it.
2) Regular sleeping pattern
We mentioned earlier how important sleep is for your immune system. It sounds simple, but in today’s hectic world, it’s not as easy as it sounds to have a healthy night’s sleep. Having a regular sleeping pattern, waking up at the same time each day and getting enough hours is key to having optimum immune health.
Zinc has been shown to play an important role in your system by making sure things work smoothly. It’s been shown in studies to reduce the severity of viral illnesses such as the common old.(7) Vegetarians and vegans are potentially more likely to be zinc deficient as it’s found in high concentrations in meat. That said, legumes and nuts are also a good source of zinc.
4) Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is common in Europe and parts of America and Canada due to the fact it requires a daily dose of sunlight to get adequate amounts.
It plays a crucial role in immunity by regulating how your body responds to infections. Deficiency in vitamin D has also been shown to contribute to autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis.(8)
Depending on where you live in the world, most people will require a daily dose of vitamin D to top up levels throughout the winter months. This is especially true in countries like the UK where the NHS recommends that most people should be taking a supplement to boost vitamin D levels in the autumn and winter months.(9)
Vitamin C is essential for immune function among other things. If your diet contains a good amount of fruit and vegetables, it’s unlikely you’ll be deficient in vitamin C. Thus, you won’t need to take vitamin C supplements.(10)
6) Stop smoking
Smoking is well-known to slow down your body’s response to fighting infection. It’s full of toxic chemicals which we all know cause harm. Smoking and drinking alcohol together gives a double blow to your immune system and weakens it even further.(11)
The tips mentioned above will help improve your immune system in any circumstance. So it’s not just useful when it comes to recovery after drinking alcohol.
Alcohol and a weakened immune system – Final words
That brings us to the end of our in-depth look at whether alcohol weakens the immune system.
We’ve walked you through the basic things you need to know about how alcohol weakens your immune system as well as the things you can do to support good immune health.
Binge drinking and chronic alcohol use certainly do increase the risk of developing infections. Alcohol suppresses your immune system via several different mechanisms including inflammation, reducing the quality of your sleep and making your gut more “leaky” to bacteria and toxins.