A strong immune system helps to fight off bacterial and viral infections that cause various illnesses. However, alcohol can adversely affect the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to infections and respiratory illnesses. Alcohol is a substance that contains ethanol. Ethanol is the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages. Ethanol builds up in the body from frequent drinking and, eventually, causes the body to produce toxic substances that can lead to inflammation and liver disease.
With the deadly coronavirus lingering, health experts are concerned over the increased risk of COVID-19 infection in people who consume alcohol regularly. Not to mention that there is a risk of addiction or re-addiction for recovering alcoholics. Public health concerns arise from consumer reports that reveal an increase in alcohol sales and consumption. Alcohol drinkers with a compromised immune system have a higher risk of getting infected with the COVID-19 virus. Similarly, people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, and HIV are at risk.
4 Ways Alcohol Affects the Immune System
Alcohol consumption increased because people are taking the drinking spree home due to the recommended social distancing strategy and shutdown of bars and clubs. Others use alcohol to cope with the stress, anxiety, or even depression from having to stay quarantined, losing their job, and problems within the home. Even though people drink to feel better, chronic alcohol drinking damages the immune cell in vital organs of the body. It also affects the immune system and its functions in the following ways:
1. Alcohol Makes the Immune System an Easy Target for Disease
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), chronic drinking can cause serious damage to the immune system over time. Chronic drinking refers to habits such as binge drinking or excessive drinking. Immune system damage is one of the long-term side effects of alcoholism, in addition to damaging the brain, heart, liver, and pancreas.
Your immune system then becomes an easier target for certain diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Binge drinking, or consuming 4 to 5 drinks in one sitting, can impair the body’s ability to fight off infections for as much as 24 hours after intoxication.
It’s also enough drinks to push the blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) to above .08 grams per deciliter or more than the legal limit. As such, if you’re exposed to someone with the coronavirus while drunk, you are more likely to contract the infection than a non-drinker.
2. Booze Impairs Cell Function
There are three important types of cells in your immune system. They are the macrophages, T, and C cells. Studies show that excessive drinking and binge drinking reduces the number of these cells and compromises their functions. Macrophages provide the first line of defense against diseases. They detect and destroy bacteria, cancerous cells, and other harmful microorganisms that enter the body.
In addition to functioning as antimicrobial warriors, they also help to regulate the immune system and promote wound healing. The T cells are antibodies that protect the body against specific pathogens. They help vaccines to work as intended and, in some cases, prevent infection such as chickenpox from happening twice.
This is because the T cells already know how to attack and kill the types of viruses it provides immunity against. B cells, or B lymphocytes, are a type of white blood cells. They secrete antibodies that attack and kill bacteria. When these important cells are suppressed due to the effects of alcohol/ethanol, the immune system has difficulty identifying and destroying pathogens that invade the body.
3. Drinking Impairs the Digestive System
Frequent alcohol intake can eventually have negative effects on your digestive system. Over time, the substance can damage the epithelial cells in the intestines. The primary roles of these cells are to aid digestion by absorbing water and nutrients and form a protective barrier against luminal microorganisms. Once the cells are destroyed, it becomes difficult for them to absorb nutrients and perform other important digestive functions.
Not only that but alcohol significantly alters the balance of healthy and unhealthy gut bacteria. It also kills or disturbs the functions of the normal healthy gut microbiome (bacteria and fungi), which help promote a healthy immune system and reduce the risk of infection. More bad bacteria pass into the blood once the gut barrier is disrupted. This increases the risk of inflammation of the liver and may even cause liver damage.
4. Alcohol Affects Respiratory System Functions
Immune cells in the upper respiratory system work to reduce infections in the lungs and throughout the respiratory tract. However, excessive drinking affects the functions of the cells, thereby increasing the risk of lung diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. Any existing disease can also become more severe if the immunity cells are impaired in both the lungs and digestive system.
Studies show that alcohol consumption may also cause more severe lung diseases, such as adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). While a lot remains unknown about the risk factors of COVID-19, many health experts are concerned that the same may be true for the virus at the center of the current pandemic.
Finding Healthy Ways to Cope
The harmful short and long-term effects of alcohol on the body can diminish a person’s immune response and increase their risk for COVID-19. To this end, the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. surgeon general warn people against drinking too much alcohol during the coronavirus pandemic. Other health experts suggest that people should cut back on alcohol to minimize the stress on the immune system.
Indeed, people are turning to alcohol to cope with panic, stress, anxiety, and depression triggered by the pandemic. But this is just a temporary solution with lasting adverse health effects. Instead, you can explore healthier ways to cope. Some simple coping strategies include exercise, yoga, and meditation.
Individuals can also use the NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator to find evidence-based treatment for alcoholism in your area. Addiction therapists are now offering telehealth in keeping with the social distancing recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).