Alcohol & Your Immune System
  • Allison Fahrenbach

Alcohol & Your Immune System

I stumbled into a statistic the other day, from the market research firm Nielsen, which stated that the COVID-19 quarantine has caused a serious spike in alcohol sales.


Ironic isn't it?


We are locking ourselves down to be "healthy" and yet are engaging in more UNHEALTHY behaviors then ever, apparently alcohol consumption being one of them.


Most people "know" alcohol isn't great for your health and it certainly doesn't help with body composition or weight management, but alcohol also negatively affects your immune system.


Right now, we’re all a bit more mindful about immunity, so I wanted to use this post to help you understand how alcohol impacts your body's immune system.



How Alcohol Impacts Your Immunity

I have no issues whatsoever about openly stating that I'm not a fan of alcohol consumption, for a variety of reasons. My clients know this very well.


While the occasional drink can help you relax and makes social time more enjoyable, when it comes to your immune health, alcohol causes dehydration, depletes vitamins and nutrients, worsens sleep, causes inflammation and throws gut bacteria out of balance.


Basically- the cons far outweight the pros.

ALCOHOL RE-PRIORITIZES METABOLISM

Alcohol is a perceived threat by the body, a "foreign invader" if you will. Our bodies literally can't store alcohol. When you drink, it is quickly absorbed through the small intestines and ends up in your bloodstream. And because it cannot be stored for later use it goes to the front of the queue to be dealt with by the liver. Essentially, it puts everything else on hold and makes it the top priority for metabolism. That means alcohol cuts in line ahead of protein, carbohydrates and fats. In fact, within minutes of drinking your fat metabolism can wane. In a UC Berkeley study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who downed an ounce of alcohol from two cocktails showed a 73% decrease in fat burning after two hours. Because drinking alcohol puts every other digestive process on hold, it can lead to the build-up of fat in the liver, one of the first steps towards liver disease.

ALCOHOL CAUSES INFLAMMATION

Inflammation is probably the biggest overall undesirable effect alcohol has on your body. I have posted about inflammation in previous blogs, so I won't get deep into the definition here, but basically inflammation is your body's protective response to threats. As it pertains to alcohol, when you drink, your body generates endotoxins that trigger inflammation.

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 chronic inflammation and we KNOW that viruses (like COVID19) LOVE inflammation.


If you're chronically inflamed it's like laying out the welcome mat for illness.


ALCOHOL WRECKS YOUR DIGESTIVE SYSTEM

One way that alcohol interacts with the body’s natural balance to create immune-damaging effects is by wreaking havoc on the digestive system.


Your body’s gastrointestinal system contains a delicate balance of microbial organisms that aid in digestion and are responsible for absorbing vital nutrients from food. Introducing alcohol into the digestive system disrupts this balance and damages the cells that build a barrier between your gut and the rest of your body.


This means that while alcohol is interfering with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients and maintain balance in the gut, it is simultaneously allowing microbes that should remain in the gut to leak into other areas of the body. Research in recent years has continued to confirm the link between gut health and an efficient immune system. Alcohol has long been connected with gastrointestinal issues and damage, but we are now beginning to discover how this damage can lead to disease vulnerability. For example one study found that 30% of those with liver disease caused by alcohol had a rare strain of gut bacteria which produces a cell-killing toxin called cytolysin.


Another example of how alcohol induced GI damage leads to a diseased body is that when you drink, a bacteria present in your gut 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.

ALCOHOL INCREASES YOUR CHANCES OF CONTRACTING UPPER RESPIRATORY ILLNESS

Another concerning link has been found between alcohol use and respiratory illness.


People who drink regularly are more likely to develop illnesses in their lungs like pneumonia, respiratory infections, and tuberculosis. Again, this is happening because of alcohol’s effect on the specific cells responsible for the body’s immune response. For example, in the case of pneumonia, the body’s natural response to the first sign of this infection is to deploy neutrophils, cells that fight bacteria-induced inflammation. Multiple studies have confirmed that alcohol impairs the body’s neutrophil response, making it difficult to fight off pneumonia and heightening the risk of death as a result.


Alcohol can also 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, then the alcohol damages the last line of defense — the mucous membrane in the bottom of your lungs, which typically stops the bad guys from permeating the body.


BUT I LIKE TO DRINK?

I wish I could say that I get it- but I don't. With all the information available on how damaging alcohol is to the mind, body and overall health, I've no clue why people still drink.


But that being said, I respect that for some people, drinking is something they enjoy, a crucial part of their social or personal life that they may not be willing to give up. If that's you, take this information and simply use it to make informed decisions about if you drink and how much you drink when you do.


If you do chose to keep drinking,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 in which you go a few days, hopefully even a week or so with no alcohol

  • If you use alcohol to "decompress" start looking for alternative ways in which you can manage your stress, ways that actually provide physiological relief to your body, as alcohol actually stresses it out further.

  • If you’re craving something sippable, you can try sparkling water, seltzer, a decaf tea or coffee, or even try creating a low calorie or calorie free "mocktail" (there are tons of recipes out there!)

  • And as always, if you have a difficult relationship with alcohol, consider speaking to a professional.

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