How Getting Sober Can Help Boost Your Immunity

Posted on March 25th, 2020

Amidst this unprecedented moment in human history where we’re inundated with statistics on how many more people have fallen ill with the coronavirus and how vulnerable certain populations are to its gravest complications, many people are researching ways to boost their immunity. While some claims about how to increase our bodies’ defenses are based on more solid evidence than others, one research-backed conclusion is virtually certain: Excessive consumption of alcohol can mar your ability to ward off infections and bounce back from illnesses. One surefire way to help bolster your biological resilience? Get sober. TODAY.

The health tolls of excessive alcohol consumption.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic, excessive alcohol consumption—which includes binge drinking (4 or more drinks during one sitting for women; 5 or more for men) and heavy drinking (8+ drinks a week for women; 15+ for men)—increases a person’s risk of developing a metabolic disease (think: diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure), digestive health issue, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and cognitive impairment. Interpersonal issues, financial troubles, and mental health problems are also frequently tied to excessive drinking. Atop all of this are the complications of drinking excessively while pregnant, which may, according to some studies, cause as many as as nine out of every 1,000 children to have a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Over 88,000 Americans die each year from alcohol-related deaths, which include not only the physical and mental health complications of excessive alcohol consumption but also accidents (think: falls, trips, slips; motor vehicle accidents; firearm injuries), suicides, homicides, and abuse of children (e.g., by inebriated caregivers).

So it’s probably not surprising that yet another consequence of heavy drinking is decreased immunity. This fact actually explains a great deal of the greater health risks seen among those who drink too much, too often.

Wait, first: what constitutes the immune system?

Here’s a quick and oversimplified primer on the immune system: This self-protective mechanism refers to a complex network of chemicals, cells, and organs that fight off and prevent the spread of infection within our body. The immune system includes the lymphatic system (lymph nodes, vessels, and lymphocytes—a.k.a. white blood cells, which themselves include ‘natural killer cells,’ B-cells and T-cells), the spleen, bone marrow, the thymus gland, antibodies, and proteins that compliment antibodies. (Feel free to dive further in depth on the immune system and its specifics here.)

How alcohol mars your immune system.

Excessive drinking has been linked to an increased vulnerability to pneumonia, slower wound and infection recovery, and higher incidence of complications after surgery—not to mention greater susceptibility to all the other diseases and complications listed above. Simply put, alcohol and its byproducts (see my earlier piece on alcohol byproducts in the context of FASDS here) reduce the abundance and function of various immune cells and impair the ability of organs comprising the immune system to do their jobs. Several animal model studies and lab experiments have found that alcohol and its byproducts promote the death of various immune cells and inhibit antibodies from properly forming or identifying and neutralizing pathogens.

As researchers Dipak Sarkar, Ph.D., M. Katherine Jung, Ph.D., and H. Joe Wang, Ph.D., outline in an excellent review of alcohol’s effects on the immune system, alcohol dampens our immune response in several ways. Its negative effects first take hold in our digestive tract—the first stop along alcohol’s journey through our bodies. As Sarkar et al. explain, alcohol alters the makeup of our gut microbiome—a conglomeration of good and bad bacteria that facilitate gut function and influence immune system functioning:

“Alcohol disrupts communication between these organisms and the intestinal immune system,” write Sarkar et al. “Alcohol consumption also damages epithelial cells, T cells, and neutrophils in the GI system, disrupting gut barrier function and facilitating leakage of microbes into the circulation.” Leakage of microbes into circulation can increase inflammation throughout the body, damaging tissues and organs, and disrupting cellular functions body-wide.

Equally concerning? Sarkar and his colleagues point out that excess alcohol consumption is strongly correlated with pneumonia—one of several potential complications of COVID-19, by the way—as well as several other diseases of the lungs, “including tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus, and ARDS [acute respiratory distress syndrome].” Alcohol is thought to disrupt the function, they add, of hair-like projections lining our upper airways called cilia that help move microbes and debris out of our lungs’ after they’re trapped in globs of mucus. Plus, alcohol appears to impair the function of lung-based immune cells (alveolar macrophages: immune cells that engulf toxic particles, and neutrophils: which help kill invading pathogens) and weaken in-built barriers in the lower airways that help keep airborne invaders from nestling into our lungs and then passing into our blood streams.

As you might imagine, if alcohol can achieve these deleterious effects just in our guts and airways, it can also cause damage in other organs and cells as it travels throughout our blood streams. More here if you’re interested, but I’ll spare you the further details since I think you get the picture. 

What about moderate alcohol intake? Isn’t that supposed to be healthy?

Yes, there is evidence that a little bit of alcohol consumption (that is, a moderate to light intake—which, for women, entails 1 drink per day and, for men, entails 2) may increase overall health, reduce cancer risk, and could improve longevity. But researchers have never fully ruled out whether this is due primarily to something within the alcohol itself (e.g., the polyphenols and antioxidants in certain sources of alcohol, like wine and beer) or whether these benefits derive from other healthy behaviors (e.g., exercise, diet, and adequate sleep) that those who drink moderately are, statistically speaking, more likely to engage in as well.

There is, of course, the argument that a little bit of alcohol may help many people dial down their stress levels, such that they don’t suffer the consequences of an overly active stress response system which involves boatloads of cortisol and other stress hormones coursing through their bodies, potentially damaging tissues and cells, and dampening immunity. Be that as it may, for some people—especially those who grapple with chronic addictive behavior—moderation simply isn’t an option. Also? There are countless other ways to de-stress that do not involve substances.

For instance: Mindfulness meditation—as if you needed one more person to recommend this—may help support immune functioning, according to some preliminary findings. Sleeping better, research shows, can also improve your immune system capacity—and quitting drinking can facilitate better sleep. How so? We think alcohol helps us fall asleep, and it may. But as our body processes it throughout the night, explain Harvard University experts, “it begins to stimulate the parts of the brain that cause arousal, in many cases causing awakenings and sleep problems later in the night.” (More on alcohol’s deleterious effects on sleep here.) Regular physical activity, another healthy coping skill (that you probably already are aware of as well), has also been shown to enhance immune function. Some studies even suggest that laughing more may improve certain immune parameters (so queuing up your favorite comedy special could be better for your health than glugging back your preferred adult beverage.)

A life beyond booze.

Especially among individuals suffering from alcohol-related health complications, alcohol abstention has been found to improve immune system functioning—as evidenced by measuring such individuals’ biomarkers of inflammation and ability to rebound from infection and illness following 3, 6, and 12 months of alcohol abstinence.

If ever there was a better time to reduce your alcohol intake—or try going without the substance for several days, weeks, or months—our current pandemic may be the perfect moment. At a time where each of our immune systems is required to fight off a highly contagious and, to vulnerable populations, potentially deadly virus, everyone can benefit from more healthy immune systems on a global scale. So consider improving your immunity by quitting alcohol not just good for your own health—but also for the health of society at large.

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