Germs and bacteria surround us everywhere. Luckily, our immune system is designed to protect our bodies from the scores of foreign substances that can make us sick. Drinking too much alcohol weakens the immune system, making your body a much easier target for disease. Understanding the effect alcohol can have on your immune system can inform the decisions you make about drinking alcohol.
KNOW THE FACTS:
Your immune system is often compared to an army. This army defends your body from infection and disease. Your skin and the mucous that lines your respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts help block bacteria from entering or staying in your body. If foreign substances somehow make it through these barriers, your immune system kicks into gear with two defensive systems: innate and adaptive.
The innate system exists in your body before you are exposed to foreign substances like bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. These substances, which are called antigens, can invade your body and make you sick. The components of the innate system include:
WHITE BLOOD CELLS – White blood cells form your first line of defense against infection.They surround and swallow foreign bodies quickly.
NATURAL KILLER (NK) CELLS – Natural Killers are special white blood cells that detect and destroy cells infected with cancer or viruses.
CYTOKINES – White blood cells send out these chemical messengers directly to an infected site. Cytokines trigger inflammatory responses, like dilating blood vessels and increasing blood flow to the affected area. They also call on more white blood cells to swarm an infected area.
The adaptive system kicks in after you are exposed to an infection for the first time. The next time you encounter the same infection, your adaptive system fights it off even faster and more efficiently than the first time. The components of the adaptive system include:
T-LYMPHOCYTE CELLS – T-cells reinforce the work of white blood cells by targeting individual foreign substances.T-cells can identify and destroy a vast array of bacteria and viruses.They can also kill infected cells and secrete cytokines.
B-LYMPHOCYTE CELLS – B-cells produce antibodies that fight off harmful substances by sticking to them and making them stand out to other immune cells.
ANTIBODIES – After B-cells encounter antigens, they produce antibodies.These are proteins that target specific antigens and then remember how to combat the antigen.
KNOW THE RISKS:
Alcohol suppresses both the innate and the adaptive immune systems. Chronic alcohol use reduces the ability of white blood cells to effectively engulf and swallow harmful bacteria. Excessive drinking also disrupts the production of cytokines, causing your body to either produce too much or not enough of these chemical messengers. An abundance of cytokines can damage your tissues, whereas a lack of cytokines leaves you open to infection.
Chronic alcohol use also suppresses the development of T-cells and may impair the ability of NK cells to attack tumor cells. This reduced function makes you more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses, and less capable of destroying cancerous cells.
With a compromised immune system, chronic drinkers are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. There is also data linking alcohol’s damage to the immune system with an increased susceptibility to contracting HIV infection.HIV develops faster in chronic drinkers who already have the virus.
Drinking a lot on a single occasion also can compromise your immune system. Drinking to intoxication can slow your body’s ability to produce cytokines that ward off infections by causing inflammations.Without these inflammatory responses, your body’s ability to defend itself against bacteria is significantly reduced. A recent study shows that slower inflammatory cytokine production can reduce your ability to fight off infections for up to 24 hours after getting drunk.
STILL LOOKING FOR THE BRIGHT SIDE
At this point, scientists do not know whether abstinence, reduced drinking, or other measures will help reverse the effects of alcohol on the immune system. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that avoiding drinking helps minimize the burden on your immune system, particularly if you are fighting a viral or bacterial infection.