Alcohol in the body causes a temporary, yet significant dip in the efficiency of the immune system. (1)
People who binge drink, experience a drop in the number of immune cells shortly after taking their first drink. The actual immune system response is similar to when a toxin enters the body. In a small study it was shown that alcohol burdens the immune system “several hours to days after exposure, when blood alcohol is no longer detectable.” (1)
During the study, a group of college students were given a series of alcohol shots, and then “blood was collected for analysis prior to alcohol ingestion, and 20 min, 2h, and 5h after alcohol ingestion.” (1) The study showed showed that after two hours, the immune system is extensively occupied with the “invader,” and returns to normal about five hours after the first drink.
Dr. Majid Afshar, the lead author of the study wrote that “There’s been plenty of research, mainly in animals, that has looked at what happens after alcohol has actually left the system, like the day after drinking, and it’s been shown that if there is infection or injury, the body will be less well able to defend against it.” (2)
The reason is that alcohol depleted the resources of the immune system. Interestingly, the researchers also wrote that “This could mean that if you already have an infection, binge drinking might make it worse. Or it might make you more susceptible to a new infection.” (2) Dr. Afshar is an assistant professor in the departments of medicine and public health at Loyola University Health Systems in Maywood, Ill.
This study showed that alcohol can burden the immune system to a degree that could risk the health of the drinker, if he or she experiences another attack on the system, such as with a virus. For example, if someone drinks and has sex with an infected individual, the chances of acquiring an infection could be higher.
What’s the bottom line?
Study co-author Elizabeth Kovacs said that “people tend to know that binging drinking – enough to reach or exceed a blood-alcohol content of .08, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – changes their behavior. But there is less awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects in other areas, such as the immune system.” (3)
1) Majid Afsharcorrespondenceemail, Stephanie Richards, Dean Mann, Alan Cross, Gordon B. Smith, Giora Netzer, Elizabeth Kovacs, Jeffrey Hasday “Acute immunomodulatory effects of binge alcohol ingestion”Published February 2015 Volume 49, Issue 1, Pages 57–64 – Alcohol
(2) WebMD – Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center – Binge Drinking May Weaken Immune System. Published January 5, 2015.
(3) Engel, M. “Binge drinking harms the immune system, study says” Published on January 1, 2015. DailyNews.com