The Alarming Effects Alcohol Has On Your Immune System

As an intoxicating, addictive, toxic, carcinogenic drug, alcohol is not a good choice as a therapeutic agent, and we need to begin informing the public that drinking alcohol is very unlikely to improve their health.

Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

During this time of crisis, we’ve replaced boredom with beer and dismissed proven practices that relieve stress, in favor of boozy virtual happy hours.

What’s most concerning about this is not our collective lack of a growth mindset, but our lack of education pertaining to alcohol’s effects on our immune systems. One of our individual priorities right now is to keep ourselves healthy and despite our commitments, the consumption of alcohol is compromising our focus and weakening our immune systems, specifically our respiratory tract.

Here’s where you exit the article because you don’t really want this to be true.


There’s some shit you don’t know.

I’ve read the articles about moderate drinking’s health-supporting claims, though I am no doctor, I trust science. I trust science because though I am not intimately educated on climate disruption, I see polar ice caps melting, coral reefs dying, and sea levels rising. I trust science because though I am not a nutritionist specialist, I feel the power of plant-forward diets, and personally know individuals who have reversed non-communicable diseases. And, I trust the science with respect to alcohol because though I am not a behavioral specialist or cardiovascular surgeon, I have felt the addictive properties of it, witnessed its organ deterioration in others, and now understand how it compromises our health.

What I don’t trust is an individual’s assignment as a moderate drinker.

The CDC, referencing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, defines moderate alcohol consumption as having up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. The moment you have that third drink, you are no longer a moderate drinker as this is not a weekly averaged number. “This definition refers to the amount consumed on any single day and is not intended as an average over several days.”

So, if you have no drinks on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, yet have 8 beers on Saturday and two bottles of wine Sunday, you are not only binge-watching Netflix, you are binge drinking, dismissing yourself from the category or moderate drinker. Any other attempt to soothe your consumption pattern is incorrect.

The CDC defines binge drinking as having 4 or more drinks in under 3 hours for women, and five or more drinks in under 3 hours for men. The “drink” quantity is not a sum of glasses used, a vehicle for alcohol, but measured by the volume of alcohol. According to the CDC, a drink is 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor, and 5 ounces of wine. A standard bottle of wine has 25.4 ounces, and a standard size bottle of hard alcohol (750ml) has 25.4 ounces. So, a bottle of wine is 5 drinks, and a bottle of alcohol is 17 drinks.

There is a lot of time being spent indoors right now, and see a chug send a chug challenges on social media, are only encouraging patterns of binge drinking, so it’s worth informing that public that even a single episode of binge drinking can have measurable effects on the innate immune system

Therefore you are not boosting your immune system, you’re compromising it.

And this is a national issue.

Normally over 25% of our country engages in binge or heavy drinking, and 14.4 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder (NIH). These are pre-coronavirus numbers. In the week ending on March 21, Newsweek reported that “Spirits sales increased by 75 percent compared to the same dates in 2019. Beer is the next most popular drink, with purchases up by 66 percent, then wine, up 42 percent year-on-year”

You can do the math here. During this pandemic, the percentage of our country that binge drinks or are heavy drinkers, has increased. The translation that you’ll soon come to learn is that the population of individuals that are weakening their immune system with the consumption of alcohol is growing.

This isn’t about social distancing to save another. This is about saving yourself.

Let’s begin by defining the immune system. The immune system serves to defend the host from pathogens and to prevent unwanted immune reactions to self.

When alcohol is introduced to the immune system it can modulate the activities of all of these cell populations by affecting the frequency, survival, and function of most of these cells, thereby interfering with pivotal immune responses, as found by Dr. Gyongyi Szabo and Dr. Banishree Saha in their article Alcohol’s Effect on Host Defense.

Dr. Szabo and Dr. Saha continued to find emerging evidence that suggests alcohol may affect immune functions by altering the balance and interactions between the host immune system and the entirety of microorganisms found in the host, aka the microbiome.

What the doctors found most concerning was where alcohol’s weakening effects hit us hardest. “In addition to its commonly recognized behavioral effects, alcohol affects many organs, including the immune system that controls the body’s defense against infectious pathogens (e.g., bacteria and viruses) and other harmful agents.”

Pair this with the knowledge that excessive drinking may impair the function of immune cells in the lungs and upper respiratory system, leading to increased risk for pneumonia, tuberculosis, and acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, and there is extreme cause for concern.

Especially in today’s climate.

Let’s not beat around the bush. Individuals with alcohol-use-disorder are more likely to develop pneumonia, tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus infection, and acute respiratory distress syndrome, as found by Dr. Samantha Simet and Dr. Joseph Sisson in their 2015 article Alcohol’s Effects on Lung Health and Immunity.

For those late to the party, this science informs us that with COVID-19 being a respiratory distress syndrome, by drinking alcohol we are increasing our risk profile to this virus.

Sure, these studies do associate the most risk with those who are heavy drinkers or have been abusing alcohol for an extended amount of time, but as we have been educated on, heavy drinking is a lot more common than one might think, and excluding oneself is dangerous. Or, foolish.

To avoid any bias, I researched the opposite. I wanted to find the studies that told me alcohol was good, and that I should terminate my sobriety for my health. A 2007 review from Cambridge University provided me that.

A Spanish Immunonutrition Research Group found that there is “enough evidence to suggest that there are some compounds in polyphenolic-rich alcoholic beverages such as wine or beer that prevent suppression of the immune system or could trigger a protective effect. In other words, healthy adults who regularly consume a low to moderate amount of beer or red wine could be less prone to infections, and an anti-inflammatory effect could be one explanatory factor of the protective effects of moderate consumption on Cardiovascular disease.”

But, here’s the thing. With 25% of our population engaging in binge or heavy drinking, and alcohol sales up 42–75% in their respective categories, few American’s can claim low or moderation as their drinking pattern today.

We’re drinking more than ever.

Ultimately, this same study was unable to truly recommend drinking, concluding “We would like to stress the fact that although the moderate consumption of beer or wine seems to exert some benefits on the immune response in healthy adults, given the serious health risks associated with exceeding two drinks per day, increased alcohol consumption cannot be recommended.”

This Cambridge University study was shy about not recommending drinking, but a 2016 paper in The American Journal of Medicine, Moderate Alcohol Consumption Is Not Associated with Reduced All-cause Mortality, by Robert Goulden, was not. “The immediate implication from this study is that clinicians need to be highly skeptical, about the hypothesized health benefits of alcohol consumption, and should not advise their patients to drink to improve their life expectancy”

This was preluded by a 2014 Study in BMJ Journals that found in Mendelian randomizations and randomized controlled studies that there was no evidence of a causal link between high HDL and reduced cardiovascular disease or all cause mortality.

With this science, there is still a truth that remains to be addressed. People don’t want to hear this.

People don’t want to read science indicting their lifestyle choices. There is public enthusiasm for the glass of wine each night and the benefits of moderate drinking, but even the ‘French Paradox’ may not be due to wine consumption, but rather a constellation of dietary components, found by 12 doctors as published in their 2013 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

What’s happening is that individuals continue to cling on to any favorable report that support’s their decisions, which is ironic because that very favorability is endangering them. But still then, even their preferred reporting is skewed.

In an attempt to move past the he said, she said or we say, they say, bickering on the subject, is a 2016 report that found the common misclassification of former drinkers as life-long abstainers. Former drinkers often stop drinking altogether due to health complications, so this tactic taints results and then makes current drinkers look good, which ultimately creates the headline that returns enthusiasm for drinking, by drinkers.

When the misclassification is corrected, a 2016 Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Alcohol Consumption and All-Cause Mortality, found that there are no health protections at low intake levels.

The conclusions?

As an intoxicating, addictive, toxic, carcinogenic drug, alcohol is not a good choice as a therapeutic agent, and we need to begin informing the public that drinking alcohol is very unlikely to improve their health.

Richie. Human

I’ve before written about my adventure with alcohol, twice on each of my past soberversaries, and shared below in addition to those is a deeper dive into all the negative effects alcohol has on one’s life and what your first 365 days without it might look like.

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