How Drinking Impacts Your Immune System

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The immune system is an intricate network of organs, tissues, proteins, and cells in the body that defends against infectious diseases. Excessive alcohol use compromises your immune system, making your body more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. When the immune system is suppressed, it is more difficult for the body to respond to and overcome a worsening infection. The longer the disease is left to progress, the more likely it is to be dangerous and require antibiotic treatment or other interventions. 

 If you suspect you or a loved one has a drinking problem, professional help might be warranted. At Guardian Recovery, we have developed a customized, comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment program that conforms to each client’s unique needs and goals. 

Whether you’ve been drinking excessively for years or have recently recognized a need to get your alcohol use under control, we are here to help. Contact us today to learn more about your treatment options and how we can help you start your recovery journey.

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Does Alcoholism Weaken the Immune System?

Extensive research suggests that heavy alcohol use has detrimental effects on vital components of the immune system. As one study notes, alcohol’s “combined effects on both innate and adaptive immunity significantly weaken host defenses, predisposing chronic drinkers to a wide range of health problems, including infections and systemic inflammation.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System Include:

  • Damaged cells lining the airway, increasing vulnerability to respiratory infections
  • Death of healthy gut bacteria promoting inflammation
  • Disruption of the gut barrier, allowing bacteria to pass through the blood
  • Damaged intestinal epithelial cells, making nutrient absorption difficult
  • Delayed immune response by prioritizing alcohol metabolism over other normal functions
  • Damaged bone marrow that produces white blood cells, reducing their count, making it more difficult for the body to fight infection

Alcohol has also been found to change the structure of white blood cells. More specifically, those that destroy invasive particles (macrophages) and T-cells that stimulate the production of other white blood cells (B-cells) that eradicate foreign invaders.

Excessive alcohol use lowers your immunity by producing systemic inflammation. It destroys good bacteria living in the intestines, allowing inflammatory molecules (cytokines) to proliferate. These molecules facilitate cell inflammation and can result in autoimmune-like effects in response to chronic inflammation caused by heavy drinking.

Alcohol use over an extended period produces long-term, systemic immune system issues and significantly increases infection risk.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System Can Cause:

  • Hepatitis B, C
  • Septicemia
  • Cellulitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Meningitis
  • Liver disease and failure
  • Lung abscess
  • Respiratory distress syndrome
  • Empyema 

Infectious Diseases

Due to heavy drinking’s effects on the immune system, it will be more difficult for the body to resist and recover from infections, including hepatitis C and HIV.

Both conditions can be acquired by using IV needles or having unprotected sex, and alcohol reduces inhibition and impairs judgment. Alcohol intoxication can make risky situations more likely. Furthermore, its effects on the immune system increase the chances of contracting these infections. 

Lung Diseases

Heavy drinking can lead to lung diseases such as pneumonia, an infection caused by bacteria or a virus entering the lungs. The immune system reacts to these invaders by inundating the lungs’ infected area with fluid that can thicken into phlegm. This reaction, although necessary, can result in a lack of oxygen and death by aspiration. 

When the immune system is suppressed by excessive alcohol use, the body becomes less able to fight against lung infections and takes longer to overcome them. Heavy drinking also damages the lungs’ inner lining, making it more challenging to eliminate the bacteria and viruses that cause pneumonia.

Gastrointestinal Disorders

The gastrointestinal system strives to maintain a delicate balance of organisms that help with digestion and absorption of beneficial nutrients. It also functions as a layer of defense against disease. Alcohol use is a significant factor in disrupting the digestive system and makes it harder for the gut’s beneficial bacteria to overcome destructive bacteria. Also, heavy drinking weakens the stomach’s lining, allowing harmful microorganisms to enter other body parts. 

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Health Conditions Related To Heavy Drinking

In addition to compromising the immune system, heavy drinking can lead to numerous other severe health conditions. Health experts have recognized alcohol use as a substantial risk factor for disease, and research has associated its use with approximately 60 acute and chronic illnesses.

Health Effects of Alcohol Use Include:

  • Hypertension
  • Liver damage
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Stroke
  • Digestive issues
  • Infectious disease
  • Learning and memory impairments
  • Dementia

Forms of Cancer Caused by Alcoholism Include:

  • Pharynx
  • Larynx
  • Esophagus
  • Breast (for females)
  • Stomach
  • Liver
  • Bowel

The risk of these forms of cancer increases in accordance with alcohol consumption.

Drinking Alcohol & COVID-19

At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic is considered all but over. However, 400-500 people in the United States still die daily from its effects.

A widespread myth claims that alcohol can protect you from COVID-19. This is false, especially considering alcohol use can lower inhibitions and impair judgment and decision-making. This can make adherence to safe practices, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, seem less critical.

You should still avoid sharing a drink from the same glass or container as someone else. This can directly expose you to their germs through residual saliva and transmit COVID-19.

As noted, consuming alcohol undermines the body’s ability to resist infections, thereby increasing the risk of complications and making recovery more challenging if you contract COVID-19. Also, “alcohol use can increase the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome and pneumonia, which are sometimes associated with COVID-19.”

How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?

When a person consumes too much alcohol, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism refers to this as “heavy drinking.” This equates to 4+ drinks per day or 8+ drinks per week for women. For men, this is 5+ drinks per day or 15+ drinks per week.

Heavy drinking occurring within two hours results in a blood alcohol concentration of approximately .08%. This is also considered binge drinking and can result in falls, car accidents, blackouts, assault, overdose, etc. Regular binge drinking significantly increases the risk for both short- and long-term health consequences and developing an alcohol use disorder.

Repairing & Supporting Immunity After Heavy Drinking

Once a person’s system is cleared of alcohol, immunity should significantly improve.

Other Ways to Improve the Immune System Include:

  • Reduce stress, such as through hobbies or having an active social life
  • Exercise regularly
  • Quit smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet high in fruit and vegetables
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Improve sleep hygiene
  • Maintain personal hygiene

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Consult With a Guardian Recovery Treatment Advisor Today

If you or a loved one has been unable to control alcohol use despite valiant attempts, we can help. We offer a customized treatment program featuring evidence-based therapies designed to address the adverse effects of alcohol dependence on your health, emotional well-being, and loved ones. At Guardian Recovery, we recognize the connection between alcohol and immune system function. Our trained staff provides therapeutic support for a variety of health conditions to promote long-term wellness.

When you reach out to us, we will put you in contact with a skilled Treatment Advisor who will guide you through our streamlined admissions process. We look forward to discussing your options with you and helping you break the cycle of addiction and reclaim the fulfilling life you deserve.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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