How Alcohol Weakens Your Immune System
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How Alcohol Weakens Your Immune System

immune system stops viruses

Many things can make you sick, and it is our immune system that fights these illnesses and keeps us healthy. Having a strong immune system is sometimes the only way to beat these diseases and stay healthy. It is not hard to have a strong immune system, but it doesn’t take much to weaken your immune system either.

Our immune system is necessary for our very survival. Without an immune system, our body is open to all kinds of attacks from viruses, germs, parasites, and dangerous bacteria.

How the Immune System Works

Think of our immune system as our personal military. Our immune system is constantly on patrol, looking for dangers, looking for invaders. As soon as our immune system sees an invader like a dangerous virus, it attacks it. This is called the immune response. The foreign body is known as an antigen or pathogen. The antigen is the protein attached to the surface of the pathogen.

A strong immune system will attack and defeat the invader, and defend against future attacks. The next time this same invader tries to attack, the immune system will be even more ready.

Trouble can start when a brand new invader that the immune system hasn’t seen before invades. This is where a strong immune system is needed. Our immune system will rally the troops and go on the offensive, hopefully defeating the invader.

Viruses like influenza can change each flu season. It only takes a slight change to make it new to the immune system. This is why the flu vaccine works sometimes, and some seasons it doesn’t work very well.

A vaccine is seen by the immune system as an invader, but the invaders are already dead in a vaccine. So the immune system takes note, fingerprints this particular virus, and files the information away for the time when live flu invaders attack.

The immune system not only attacks invaders, but it also clears out dead and faulty cells, faulty cells that can lead to cancer and other diseases. A strong immune system is necessary to clear out cancer cells and keep them from getting a foothold.

Where is the Immune System Located

The immune system is located throughout our body, and has an extensive communication system, sending signals to all parts of our body. Our immune system consists of lymphocytes (B-cell, T-cells, and NK cells), monocytes/macrophages, and neutrophils.
White blood cells are the soldiers of our immune system. When they detect an invader, they recruit more white blood cells. And they can call on even more help in the form of killer T-cells, and helper T-cells (CD4 T-cells). Killer cells or cytotoxic T-cells rush to the site of the foreign invader like a disease, virus, cancer cells or infection and destroy the infected cells.

Along with the killer T-cells and B-cells create antibodies to rid our body of the infection or disease while assisting the killer T-cells.

There is also a general that has to know when to call a cease fire, and the generals in this battle are regulatory T-cells. The regulatory T-cells shut off the other T-lymphocytes. 

If it weren’t for these regulatory cells, the immune system wouldn’t know when stop trying to cure the infection. Regulatory T-cells also prevent autoimmune diseases because of an overactive immune system.

When the battle is over and the immune system calms down, there is a memory of the invaders, whether it was a virus, bacterium, infectious disease, cancer cells, the innate immune system remembers. Memory cells keep a complete record of the invaders and will be prepared the next time they show up.

White blood cells are stored in several places throughout our body including the:

  • Thymus
  • Spleen
  • Bone marrow
  • Lymph nodes and lymphatic system

The Immune System and Our Gut Bacteria

A large portion of our immune system resides in our gut.
“A huge proportion of your immune system is actually in your GI tract,” says Dan Peterson, assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.”

The bacteria in our gut create massive amounts of antibodies. Antibodies (immunoglobulin) are used by the immune system to identify and neutralize invaders like viruses and dangerous bacteria [1].

This is why it is so important to eat healthy foods and fiber to feed the good gut bacteria. Plant-based foods like vegetables, beans, lentils, rice, potatoes, whole grains, and fruits are prebiotic foods. These prebiotic foods feed the good gut bacteria and keep them healthy, so they can protect us from illness.

How Alcohol Destroys Good Gut Bacteria

Alcohol can weaken our immune system and lower our immunity to illnesses. Alcohol is damaging to our good gut bacteria, where a majority of our immune system lives.

Alcohol causes an imbalance in the gut bacteria, causing an overgrowth of bad bacteria, which then crowds out the good bacteria. The longer you drink, the worse this condition will get until you have very little good gut bacteria left, further weakening the immune system.

The alcohol is basically killing off the good gut bacteria. In other words, drinking alcohol is killing a large portion of your immune system.

Healthy gut bacteria are also responsible for our body’s ability to absorb vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from the foods we eat. And those nutrients are what are needed by our immune system to provide a good defense against invaders and illness.

If your gut is damaged from too much alcohol, your body will not be able to absorb enough nutrients to keep the immune system strong. You will have a weakened immune system not capable of fighting off invading viruses and dangerous bacteria. Excessive drinking can severely damage your gut microbiome.

Certain nutrients are important for a strong immune system. If you have a weakened immune system, supplements like zinca good vitamin B complex, vitamin D3 and selenium can help. You can get enough selenium eating just one Brazil nut several times per week.

Alcohol Interferes with Cell Communications

When the immune system spots an invader like a virus, the call goes out for white blood cells. Not only does alcohol interfere with this communications between cells, but can also disrupt normal T-cell functioning. This leaves the cells open to bacterial or viral infections.

One binge drinking weekend can result in immune system failure leaving you wide open to colds, the flu, coronavirus, COVID-19, pneumonia, and many other illnesses.

In a way, it is like your drinking caused all of the soldiers in your immune system to pass out and, become unaware of what is going on around them. Invaders can walk in right through your defensive lines. Even moderate drinking of alcohol weakens immune system response.

Alcohol and White Blood Cells

To find out how alcohol affects the immune system, researchers exposed white blood cells (monocytes) to chemicals that imitate viruses and bacteria.

Half of these white blood cells were then infused with alcohol levels equal to what a person would have with four alcoholic drinks daily for a week.

The alcohol-doused white blood cells produced only a quarter as much of their virus fighting abilities as compared to the sober white blood cells.

Alcohol Affects Sleep

One of the most important factors in having a strong immune system is getting enough sleep, quality sleep. The lack of quality sleep is one of the main factors of a weakened immune system and a compromised immune function.

Alcohol consumption interferes with quality sleep and disrupts our natural circadian rhythms. Even moderate amounts of alcohol will cause a lighter, more restless sleep. This diminished quality sleep will leave you waking up tired and with a weakened immune system.

You might think that alcohol helps you sleep, but that isn’t true. After falling asleep, your body is metabolizing the alcohol. You will get less REM sleep, and after the sedative effect of the alcohol wears off during the middle of the night, you might wake up and have a very hard time falling back asleep.

This all leads to a terrible night sleep, a tiring day, and a weakened immune system.

Sluggish Immune System

The immune system response is sluggish for many hours after drinking alcohol. If you drink every night or every weekend, your immune system will be weakened for a good percent of the time. 

Alcohol abuse itself causes diseases like alcohol poisoning, liver damage, liver disease, heart disease and a higher risk of cancer. Being at a higher risk for these and other diseases further weakens the immune system.
With so many viruses, bugs, and illnesses going around, the last thing you need is for your immune system to be down and out, and not doing its job.

It is not hard to boost your immune system. Eat a healthy diet with plenty of plant-based mealsavoid excessive alcohol consumption, exercise, and make sure to get plenty of sleep.

About The Author

Sam Montana is a certified Food Over Medicine instructor from the Wellness Health Forum Center and certified in optimal nutrition from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

© 2020 Sam Montana/Healthy Food and Life

[1] John Hopkins Medicine  
National Center for Biotechnology Information
How Alcohol Weakens Your Immune System