The Importance of a Strong Immune System
The coronavirus pandemic has bought newfound attention to the importance of a strong immune system. Individuals with underlying medical conditions that weaken the immune system have an increased risk of developing COVID-19 complications that can lead to hospitalization or death.
Alcohol weakens the body’s immune system in several different ways—even when the person doesn’t meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder. The risks increase as alcohol consumption increases, but negative effects are seen whenever a person is drinking at levels that go beyond the limits of moderate drinking outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men.
Binge drinking, defined as consuming enough alcohol to bring a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dl or above, is the most dangerous form of alcohol consumption in terms of damaging the immune system. For men, binge drinking is often thought of as consuming five or more drinks in two hours. For women, four or more drinks in two hours typically meets the threshold for binge drinking.
Alcohol Leads to Nutritional Deficiency
Alcohol is full of empty calories, which can cause people to consume fewer healthy foods with the nutrients their bodies need. Over time, chronic drinking also damages the gastrointestinal tract—reducing the body’s ability to extract vital nutrients from the food that is consumed.
People who drink alcohol to excess typically have deficiencies in a number of important vitamins and minerals. This includes:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
While all of these nutrients are important for optimal health, Vitamin C is particularly important for a healthy immune system.
Alcohol Causes Dehydration
Alcohol is considered a diuretic, which means it causes the body to pass more liquid than normal through urination. The more alcohol you consume, the more you’ll urinate and increase your risk of becoming dehydrated.
Dehydration does more than increase hangover symptoms. It has a negative effect on the immune system because it reduces the overall volume of blood and lymphatic fluids that are essential for a strong immune system response to disease-causing bacteria and viruses.
Alcohol Changes the Makeup of Your Gut Microbiome
Your gut microbiome is home to trillions of microorganisms that support your overall health, including your immune system. Drinking alcohol can damage the immune cells that line the intestines to serve as the body’s first line of defense against the bacteria and viruses that can make you sick. Damage to the cells in your intestines makes you more susceptible to catching any type of bacterial or viral illness—including everything from the common cold to COVID-19.
Alcohol Makes It Harder for Your Body to Identify Pathogens
To be effective, your immune system needs to identify pathogens and develop a targeted immune response. Researchers don’t entirely understand why, but alcohol consumption lowers the number of T cells and B cells in your body, which are responsible for this protection. This creates a reduced response toward infection and an impaired ability to make antibodies against illness-causing viruses and bacteria.
Alcohol Can Cause Chronic Inflammation
Excessive alcohol consumption can cause chronic inflammation throughout the body. Inflammation is a natural part of the immune system response when the body encounters foreign pathogens, but the chronic inflammation caused by alcohol consumption puts the body in a “high alert” state every day. In addition to causing fatigue and chronic pain, this constant stress weakens the organs and makes it harder for the body to fight off any infection that does occur.
Note that chronic inflammation is linked to autoimmune diseases—conditions where the body attacks healthy cells by mistake. For example, alcohol-related liver disease and liver failure are thought to have an autoimmune component.
Alcohol Disrupts Circadian Rhythms
Circadian rhythms tell your body when it’s time to go to sleep and wake up, but they also affect a number of other bodily functions—including hormone production, blood sugar control, and immune system responses. Alcohol consumption disrupts normal sleep/wake cycles by causing you to wake up more often during the night and reducing your overall sleep quality. When you consume alcohol regularly, this can lead to a disruption in your circadian rhythms that makes the body less able to fight off infection.
Protect Yourself by Getting Sober
Getting treatment for an alcohol use disorder is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself during this uncertain time. It takes the body time to heal, but your immune system will become strong with each day of sobriety.
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, we can provide you with the evidence-based care you need to begin your recovery journey. We’re considered an essential service by the state of Pennsylvania and will remain open throughout the pandemic while following all CDC-recommended precautionary measures. Let us help you build the foundation for a life free from the burden of addiction.