The immune system is our first line of defense against harmful micro-organisms like the Coronavirus, and even if you get sick, the strength of your immune system greatly predicts the progression of the disease. Everyone understands this, and so it makes perfect sense than many people exhibit a greater interest in their immune health and make a point to strengthen their immunity during these challenging times. But even if you maintain a healthy diet, exercise and get enough rest every day, certain harmful habits may undermine your immunity.
Excessive alcohol consumption, even occasionally, is the major culprit that can make a dent in your immune protection and raise your risk of becoming sick. Below we examine the reasons why this might happen and explain what is considered ‘excessive drinking’.
How Alcohol Affects the Immune System
Alcohol is one of those dubious drinks that can benefit some people if consumed in moderate quantities, but it can be really harmful to others. Heavy drinking is bad for everyone, being a known contributing factor to the development of cancer, heart, liver, and pancreatic issues, as well as addiction.
One of the most overlooked adverse effects of alcohol is its ability to affect our immune health, and scientific research suggests that alcohol does that by impairing the protective functions of the digestive system and the lungs. The malicious digestive effects of alcohol are as follows:
1. Alcohol Chips Away at the Gut Lining, namely the epithelial cells and immune cells that protect the gut and prevent harmful agents from entering the bloodstream. This way, alcohol facilitates the leakage of micro-organisms into your blood - an extreme blow to your immune health.
2. Alters the Gut Microbiome: As you probably know, beneficial gut bacteria play an important role in our immune and digestive health, and alcohol disrupts the balance of these bacteria in your digestive tract, which has an adverse effect on your overall immunity.
3. Increases Inflammation in the Body: When microbes start leaking into your bloodstream, this activates the immune cells that live in your liver, increases the level of inflammation in the body and damages the liver.
In addition, alcohol can increase one’s risk of lung disease by affecting immune cells that live in the lungs and weakening the lungs’ ability to clear themselves from bacteria, dirt, and mucus through the movement of cilia - microscopic fiber-like structures that protect our lungs by moving in wave-like motions and repel germs and dirt from the lining of the lungs. As a result, heavy drinkers are more likely to suffer from lung disease, both chronic and seasonal.
What’s more, it has also been observed that heavy drinkers often have an impaired ability of wound-healing, recovery from physical trauma and various diseases. Although scientists aren't sure why that may be the case, a 2015 study suggests that binge drinking can dramatically lower the number of immune cells called monocytes in your blood, essentially lowering your body's immunity in an instant.
As you can see, heavy drinking can affect your immunity in a variety of nuanced ways. But what is considered 'heavy' or 'moderate' drinking? See below.
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
This is the question you’ve been waiting for - what is the safe limit of alcohol I can indulge in without harming my immune system? As you may expect, this varies on many factors, including your weight, age, and overall health. According to the Mayo Clinic, a moderate amount of alcohol refers to 1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks for men. By one drink, they mean 12 fluid ounces of beer (355 ml), 5 fluid ounces of wine (148 ml) and 1.5 fluid ounces (44 ml) of distilled spirits.
Surpassing those quantities is considered heavy drinking. Also, keep in mind that some people shouldn’t be drinking at all. This includes people who have suffered a stroke, those who have a weak heart, people with liver and pancreatic problems, pregnant women, people under the age of 21 and those diagnosed with alcohol use disorder.
- High blood pressure medication
- Prescription and over-the-counter pain relievers
- Sleeping pills
- Anxiety medications
- Muscle relaxants
- Diabetes medicine
- Antipsychotic medication
- Cholesterol medications.
The information sheet of your medication will typically list whether or not a specific drug is safe to combine with alcohol, but you can also ask your doctor if in doubt.
Please stay safe and don't underestimate the effect alcohol can have on your body.