How Alcohol Affects Your Immune System and How to Bounce Back

By: Molly Apel
May 26, 2020

How Alcohol Affects Your Immune System and How to Bounce Back

  • As we stay in to stay healthy, we may be drinking more than usual. What kind of toll does alcohol take on the immune system?
  • Alcohol affects your whole body — from dehydration to inflammation, in your gut to your organs.
  • Find out what you should know about alcohol and immunity. Then, follow these tips to balance the negative effects of drinking.

According to market research firm Nielsen, the COVID-19 quarantine has caused a serious spike in alcohol sales. With virtual happy hours, a lack of a work commute and the sheer boredom of quarantine, people are imbibing more than usual.

You already know alcohol is not a health supplement. You might not know how it affects your immune system.

Right now, we’re all a bit more mindful about immunity. While drinking alcohol can weaken your immune system, there are steps you can take to help you feel better the next day.

Here’s what you should know, plus tips to support and strengthen your immunity.

How does alcohol affect your body?

Beer on table

Prepare yourself because the full disclosure doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

While the occasional drink can help you relax and makes social time more enjoyable, alcohol can also cause dehydration, deplete vitamins and nutrients, worsen sleep, cause inflammation and throw gut bacteria out of balance — all things that can weaken your body’s powers of immunity.

Here are the specifics on what happens in your body when you drink alcohol.

Reprioritizes metabolism

When you throw one down the hatch, your body puts everything else on hold.
Your body can’t store alcohol and wants it out pronto, so it drops what it’s doing and makes it the top priority for metabolism. That means alcohol cuts in line ahead of protein, carbohydrates and fats.

Alcohol gets a VIP escort to your liver, because it’s your liver’s job to break it down and get it out.[1] As the alcohol is processed, water and nutrients are used to flush it out, leaving your body depleted and dehydrated.

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Causes inflammation

Inflammation is the biggest overall effect alcohol has on your body.

Inflammation is your body’s protective response to threats. In response to alcohol, your body generates endotoxins that trigger inflammation.[2] If you drink often, the body is never able to let its defenses down. Remaining in a constant state of inflammation wears on your body, eventually causing damage to your tissues in the form of chronic inflammation.

Throws gut bacteria out of balance

You’ve been taking good care of your gut health, eating vegetables and taking gut health supplements. The problem is that alcohol can throw a wrench in your gut microbiome’s delicate balance.

Alcohol causes rapid overgrowth of certain gut bacteria. The toxins they produce overwhelm the helpful bacteria, disrupting the delicate systems that process your food and send signals to your immune system to protect the body. (For more about this, read about how your gut controls your immune system).

One study found that 30% of those with liver disease caused by alcohol have a rare strain of gut bacteria which produces a cell-killing toxin called cytolysin.[3] When stimulated by alcohol, another rapidly reproducing bacteria begins pumping out something called lipopolysaccharide (LPS). LPS overwhelms the gut’s gatekeeping bacteria, allowing these toxins to permeate the gut barrier and spread throughout the body to other organs.[4]

Toxins affect more than just your gut. It’s the liver’s job to filter these toxins and send them out of the body. As it tries to keep up over time, the liver eventually develops scarring — a potentially life-threatening condition called cirrhosis.[5]

Contributes to fatty liver disease

Not to get all doom and gloom, but according to the Cleveland Clinic, about 90% of people who drink 4 to 5 drinks per day over decades have fatty liver.[6] That’s reason enough to consider swapping the occasional drink for a mocktail.

How does alcohol affect immunity?

Closeup of blue gut microbes

When your body is exposed to a threat, the immune system mounts a response to attack and get rid of the foreign pathogen. In general, the healthier a person’s immune system is, the quicker their immune system can clear out an invading bacteria, antigen or virus and recover from a disease.

Alcohol makes it harder for your immune system to show up for work, so to speak. Here’s how:

Distracts your immune system

If your body is constantly working on getting rid of the alcohol, it may fail to notice new problems coming in the door.

Your brain plays a big role in sensing when it’s time to kick your immune response into high gear. In response to stress, your brain activates the hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is like a superhero, teaming up with your body’s immune cells to keep inflammation in check.

The problem is that your HPA axis views alcohol as a stressful event and elevates your stress hormone levels when you drink (hi, cortisol). Chronic exposure to alcohol can burn out your HPA axis and blunt your body’s response to other stressors.[7] That means your body has a harder time keeping inflammation in check.

This is a long way of saying, alcohol is hard on your immune system, and over time, it has a harder time showing up to do its job.

In fact, according to the CDC, drinking increases your chances of getting six different types of cancer — and the more you drink, the higher your chances.[8]

Damages your physical defenses

Alcohol can damage the microscopic cilia in the top of the lungs that catch and stop harmful bacteria, antigens and viruses as they enter. If the invaders get past the cilia, that’s bad news because alcohol also damages the last line of defense — the mucous membrane in the bottom of the lungs, which typically stop the bad guys from permeating the body. Studies show that drinking makes the lungs more susceptible to ailments like pneumonia and viruses.[9]

Related: How to Strengthen Your Immune System

What do I do with this information?

People clinking wine glasses

The CDC defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.[10] That said, right now the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Surgeon General agree that during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re taking a conservative stance, recommending the optimal amount of alcohol to drink to be … none.

It’s important to make informed decisions about your health. But what do we do with this general knowledge that alcohol is bad for us? Should we quit drinking altogether?

Here’s the bottom line. Lots of threats can affect your body’s immune system, from sleep quality to gut bacteria. Unlike other health factors, how much you drink is all in your hands.

Consider that alcohol is part of our social lives. It’s how we connect with friends (virtually or otherwise). It’s something we enjoy at dinner with loved ones. If we drink once in a while, we get the benefits of enjoyable connection. If we drink too much and too often, we lose those benefits.

We all know the habits of drinking safely and responsibly. Here are some tips to keep your body healthy:

  • Follow a pattern of drinking infrequently — not every day.
  • Schedule a “dry” stretch into your calendar monthly.
  • Find alternate ways of “decompressing” after a long week, like a long talk with a friend or diving into a good book.
  • If you have a difficult relationship with alcohol, speak to a professional.

If you’re craving something sippable, try these mocktail recipes for size:

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