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Alcohol Weakens Immune Function
Nutrition / Natural Medicine Update (March 30, 2020)
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Alcohol Weakens Immune Function
by Dr. James Mechino
Multiple Peer-reviewed Scientific Journals
In previous Lifestyle Medicine Updates, I have explained the role of nutrition and lifestyle factors as important modulators of immune system function. In this update, I want to concentrate exclusively on the impact that alcohol consumption has on weakening the body’s immune system, especially with respect to the risk of respiratory tract infections and pneumonia. Let’s start with a quote from the journal Alcohol Research in 2015 where researchers stated, “clinicians have long observed an association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects such as susceptibility to pneumonia. In recent decades, this association has been expanded to a greater likelihood of acute respiratory stress syndromes (ARDS), sepsis, alcoholic liver disease (ALD), and certain cancers; a higher incidence of postoperative complications; and slower and less complete recovery from infection and physical trauma, including poor wound healing”. (1) The evidence suggests that the more you drink, the more you suppress your immune function and the greater is the risk of infections and cancer development. A quote from the Addiction Campus website states, “those who consume alcohol at higher-than-moderate levels experience double the rate of pneumonia, and increased rate of tuberculosis, hepatitis C, and cancer, as well as greater exposure to hepatitis B, HIV, and other infections”. (2)
But some studies indicate that even small amounts of alcohol can weaken the immune system. As such, “some experts suspect that alcohol exerts an “all-or-none” effect on the immune response—that is, the presence or absence of alcohol, rather than its amount, dictates the immune response”. (3) A 2020 update report states the following, “alcohol can also impair key immune cells in the lungs and damage epithelial cells that line the lungs’ surface (where COVID-19 can also attack). Often, the alcohol-provoked lung damage goes undetected until a second insult, such as a respiratory infection, leads to more severe lung diseases”. The same report indicates that “alcohol consumption does not have to be chronic to have negative health consequences. In fact, research shows that acute binge drinking also affects the immune system.” (in a negative way). The 2015 review of alcohol and the immune system explains that alcohol impairs the function of important immune cells that protect the respiratory tract (most notably the alveolar macrophages and neutrophils), and it weakens the barrier function of the tissue that line the lower airways, making it easier for viruses and bacteria to infiltrate and initiate an infection. Alcohol also disrupts the normal action of the fine-hair-like projections (cilia) the normally sweep viruses and bacteria out of the respiratory tract so they can’t start an infection process. (1) Alcohol also disrupts the gut microflora, killing off many friendly gut bacteria required to promote optimal immunity throughout the body. Alcohol also damages the intestinal lining, which allows more viruses and bacteria to leak into the bloodstream. (1)
The bottom line is that alcohol consumption impairs immune system function, which leaves us more susceptible to infections, including respiratory tract infections. If strengthening your immune system is a goal you are striving to achieve then avoiding alcohol altogether, or using it very judiciously, is an additional proactive strategy I would encourage you to implement.
I have included the references for this information in the text below.
1. Sarkar D, Jung M, Wang HJ. Alcohol and the immune system. Alcohol Research. 2015;37(2):153-155
2. Addiction Campus: The effect of alcohol abuse on the immune system. (2019)
3. Kovacs E, Messingham K. Influence of alcohol and gender on the immune response. Alcohol Research Current Review. 2002;26(4):257-263
4. Global Health Now. John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Hold the quarantines: Alcohol and the novel coronavirus might not mix (March 19, 2020).
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Dr. James Meschino
Global Integrative Medicine Academy
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