Few people recognize alcohol’s effects on the immune system, says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). However, whether it is realized or not, prolonged alcohol consumption can weaken the body’s natural defense to disease, putting heavy drinkers at risk of getting sick and perhaps staying sick.
Alcohol in large amounts can be so harmful to the immune system that a person who indulges in excessive drinking could be just as much at risk of getting sick as someone who drinks regularly.
According to the NIAAA, consuming large amounts of alcohol on only one occasion can affect the body’s ability to defend itself against infections. A person can have impaired immune health up to 24 hours after having too much to drink.
So, so answer the question, yes, alcohol dependence can affect immune system health. Find out how below.
Alcohol Can Block Nutrients, Reduce White Blood Cell Count
Drinking alcohol heavily can impair the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, according to LiveStrong. Alcohol actually blocks nutrients from feeding the immune system, it reports.
According to the health website, once alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach, the body’s white blood cell count falls, making it harder for the immune system to fight against disease.
The body releases white blood cells to help the body fight off infection, as Medical News Today explains.
Red blood cells are also affected when alcohol circulates throughout the body. According to Livestrong’s report, alcohol causes a “blood sludging” effect when it comes into contact with red blood cells. This happens when red blood cells clump together and become plugged up, reducing oxygen to many of the body’s vital organs.
“With less than an optimal amount of oxygen, your organs and your immune system will not operate at peak efficiency,” the health website says.
Signs that Alcohol Dependence Is Affecting the Immune System
You may wonder if there are ways to tell when drinking alcohol is in the process of weakening the immune system. One thing to be mindful of is how much alcohol is being consumed.
Alcohol use is especially a threat to immune health when consumption is excessive. The main sign that alcohol dependence is tearing down the immune system is when a person is prone to getting infections.
“A person with a weakened immune system is likely to get infections more frequently than most other people, and these illnesses might be more severe or harder to treat,” Medical News Today says. It also says that people with immune health problems also get infections that those with stronger immune systems would not get.
So, if you drink heavily and regularly feel sick, your alcohol use could be the problem. If you’re also catching a cold or can’t seem to avoid getting the flu or another illness, and you also drink alcohol regularly, you may want to start with tracking your alcohol intake and cutting back. If you cut back and notice you don’t get sick as much, then alcohol use could be the reason for your illnesses.
Sometimes, regularly getting sick involves more serious conditions than having a cold. Other signs of a weakened immune system are:
- Bronchitis (inflammation of the lining of bronchial tubes)
- Meningitis (inflammation of the membranes around the brain, spinal cord)
- Pneumonia (infection of the lungs)
- Skin infections
A weakened immune system can also bring on the following:
- Autoimmune disorders (such as lupus, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis)
- Inflammation affecting the body’s internal organs
- Blood disorders or abnormalities (such as anemia)
- Digestive issues, such as appetite loss, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps
- Growth and developmental delays in infants, children
Immunocompromised people are also susceptible to:
- Hepatitis B and hepatitis C
- Certain types of cancer
Long-term alcohol use has been linked to various cancers, including cancers affecting the mouth, throat, and esophagus, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, and liver cancer.
Alcohol and Liver Disease
Alcohol dependence can cause changes in liver function that indicate disease. As Healthline explains, one of the functions of the liver is to break down and process potentially harmful substances, which include alcohol. Taxing the liver with heavy drinking causes damage over time, and while the liver can repair itself, continued alcohol abuse will create scar tissue that builds up over time.
Liver disease can present as three conditions. A person can have a fatty liver, which happens as fat builds up in the liver over time. If symptoms do present, they include discomfort where the liver is located, tiredness, and unexplained weight loss.
A person could have mild or severe alcoholic hepatitis, which causes inflammation levels in the liver to rise. It can happen over time, or severe cases can occur as a result of binge drinking. Signs of alcoholic hepatitis are:
- Appetite loss
- Pain or discomfort in the area where the liver is located
- Nausea and vomiting
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes)
Alcohol cirrhosis of the liver also occurs due to alcohol abuse. Prolonged drinking can cause scar tissue to form and replace healthy liver tissue. Healthline says this condition can also lead to other health complications, including increased risk of infection, kidney failure, liver cancer.
Unlike the first two conditions, alcoholic cirrhosis cannot be reversed. At that point, treatment can only aim to minimize harm done to the liver.
What Is Excessive Drinking?
Now that we have a general understanding of how alcohol affects the immune system, you may be wondering how much alcohol is too much for the immune system to handle. The answer to that changes depending on the person.
Each person who drinks alcohol will have to decide what their alcohol intake limits are. This is a personal decision based on many factors that are unique to each person. It is also difficult to say how much is too much as alcohol does not affect everyone the same.
However, generally speaking, if drinking alcohol frequently or heavily puts you in a position where your health and well-being are regularly compromised, then that requires a closer look.
Health authorities have defined what excessive drinking is. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies binge drinking as one example of it.
Binge drinking happens when women have four or more drinks during a two- to three-hour occasion, and men have five or more drinks in this same period.
Many people who binge drink do not struggle with alcohol dependence. However, that does not make them safer from alcohol use issues or the results of them, such as poor immune system health.
According to the CDC, nearly 40 million Americans binge drink, and 90% of excessive drinkers are binge drinkers, who may exhibit that drinking pattern four times a month. On average, binge drinkers drink eight drinks a month.
The CDC defines heavy drinking as well. For women, it’s having eight or more alcoholic drinks throughout the week, and for men, it’s having 15 or more drinks during that same period.
Drinkers under the U.S. legal drinking age 21 and pregnant women who use alcohol are also in the excessive drinking category.
If you or someone you know is struggling to control their alcohol use, the next step is getting sober. Many people find they need help with this, especially if they have been dependent on alcohol.
Protect Your Immune System: Get Help for Alcohol Addiction
Alcohol affects the entire body, and to keep it running at optimal health, it must be able to fight off disease and illnesses of all kinds. Drinking too much harms the body’s ability to do that, and as the NIAAA notes, few people realize that overindulging in ethanol alcohol could hurt their health in significant ways down the line.
Not everyone who drinks too much has a problem handling alcohol, but some do, and dependence on the substance to the point of abusing likely means a person needs help to stop their misuse.
Getting treatment for alcohol dependence or addiction at an accredited facility is the next step for people at this point in their lives. Addiction care specialists and medical staff can help recovering alcoholics find a treatment plan they can follow to help them end their addiction to alcohol.
Quitting alcohol is easier said than done for many people. If you have a dependence on the substance, then quitting it means dealing with uncomfortable and life-threatening withdrawals.
It is safer to get professional treatment in a rehab facility where you can be monitored around the clock during medical detox and treated if any health emergencies arise.
Once you have had medical detox and are stabilized, addiction care professionals can help you figure out where you should be placed so that you can begin and treat your addiction to alcohol. Detox alone does not keep people away from using alcohol.
A treatment program that involves psychotherapy, counseling, and other approaches geared toward encouraging sobriety is needed to help a person heal from addiction in all the ways that they can. Plus, treatment programs can connect you to a recovery community that understands the unique challenges and situations you are facing as you seek to leave substance abuse behind.
Arete Recovery, located in Pembroke Pines, Florida, is ready to help you or your loved one move away from abusing alcohol. Substance addiction can cause people to lose everything they have, and we know we can help you make a better decision for your life.
Give us a call to learn more about our treatment programs. Arete’s licensed medical and clinical professionals understand our clients’ needs and use a multidisciplinary approach to treat the mental, emotional, and social aspects of addiction in addition to the physical one.