How Alcohol Affects your Immune System

How Alcohol Affects your Immune System

Why should you care?

According research the COVID-19 quarantine has caused a serious spike in alcohol sales, with virtual happy hours, a lack of a work commute and the sheer boredom of quarantine, people are consuming more than usual, but just how is it affecting your immune system? Right now, we’re all a bit more mindful about immunity, yet drinking alcohol can weaken your immune system.

….so how does alcohol affect your body?

While the occasional drink can help you relax and makes social time more enjoyable, alcohol can also cause dehydration, deplete vitamins and nutrients, worsen sleep, cause inflammation and throw gut bacteria out of balance.

— all things that can weaken your body’s powers of immunity.


When you consume alcohol, your body puts everything else on hold, your body can’t store alcohol and wants to process it asap, so it drops what it’s doing and makes it the top priority for metabolism. That means alcohol cuts in ahead of protein, carbohydrates and fats. Alcohol gets a VIP escort to your liver, because it’s your liver’s job to break it down and get it out. As the alcohol is processed, water and nutrients are used to flush it out, leaving your body depleted and dehydrated.


Inflammation is the biggest overall effect alcohol has on your body. Inflammation is your body’s protective response to threats. In response to alcohol, 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 damage to your tissues in the form of chronic inflammation.


You’ve been taking good care of your gut health, eating vegetables & taking supplements for gut health, the alcohol can unbalance your gut microbiome’s delicate balance, causing rapid overgrowth of certain gut bacteria, & produce toxins that overwhelm the helpful bacteria, disrupting the delicate systems that process your food and send signals to your immune system to protect the body.

One study found that 30% of those with liver disease caused by alcohol have a rare strain of gut bacteria which produces a cell-killing toxin called cytolisin & when stimulated by alcohol, another rapidly reproducing bacteria begins pumping out lipopolysaccharides (LPS). LPS overwhelm the gut’s gatekeeping bacteria, allowing these toxins to permeate the gut barrier and spread throughout the body to other organs.

Toxins affect more than just your gut, it’s also the liver’s job to filter these toxins, so over time, the liver eventually develops scarring — a potentially life-threatening condition called cirrhosis.


According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 80% of people who drink 4 to 5 drinks per day over decades have fatty liver.


When your body is exposed to a threat, the immune system mounts a response to attack and get rid of the foreign pathogen.

In general, the healthier a person’s immune system is, the quicker their immune system can clear out an invading bacteria, antigen or virus and recover from a disease.


If your body is constantly working on getting rid of the alcohol, it may fail to notice new health problems. Your brain plays a big role in sensing when it’s time to kick your immune response into high gear. In response to stress, your brain activates the hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis teams up with your body’s immune cells to keep inflammation in check.

The problem is that your HPA axis views alcohol as a stressful event and elevates your stress hormone levels when you drink. Chronic exposure to alcohol can burn out your HPA axis and blunt your body’s response to other stressors.  That means your body has a harder time keeping inflammation in check.

This is a long way of saying, alcohol is hard on your immune system, and over time, it has a harder time showing up to do its job & according to the CDC, drinking increases your chances of getting six different types of cancer — and the more you drink, the higher your chances.


Alcohol can 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, it reduces the last line of defense — the mucous membrane in the bottom of the lungs, which typically stop the bad guys from permeating the body.

The bottom line.

Lots of threats can affect your body’s immune system, from sleep quality to gut, how much you drink is all in your hands.  We know alcohol is part of our social lives, it’s how we connect with friends (virtually or otherwise). It’s something we enjoy at dinner with loved ones. If we drink once in a while, we get the benefits of enjoyable connection. If we drink too much and too often, we lose those benefits. We all know the habits of drinking safely and responsibly. 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.
  • Find alternate ways of “decompressing” after a long week, like a long talk with a friend or diving into a good book.
  • If you have a difficult relationship with alcohol, speak to a professional.


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Julie Nasir
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