Can alcohol damage your immune system?
Excessive alcohol consumption can damage your health in many different ways. Most of us are aware that regularly consuming too much alcohol can impair liver function, damage your cardiovascular system, and increase the likeliness of certain cancers. Many people see these illnesses as worries for the distant future; however, alcohol can also have a detrimental effect on your immune system, which may affect your day-to-day health.
In recent decades, increased alcohol intake has been associated with serious immune complications, such as acute respiratory stress syndromes, pneumonia, sepsis and slower, less efficient recovery from infection and physical injury.1
These conditions are extreme; however, several other, more common issues, can arise when immune function is impaired due to alcohol consumption such as:
1. Sleep problems and stress
2. Magnesium deficiency
3. Upper and lower respiratory tract infections.
Read on to find out more about the effect of alcohol on the immune system, and get some tips on how to manage your alcohol intake.
1. Sleep problems and stress
If you are regularly consuming more than the recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption (14 units per week – equating to 14 single measures of spirits, 7 pints of average strength lager and around 9 glasses (125ml) of average strength wine), you may end up feeling tired, sluggish, and as though you have had no rest at all.
In technical terms, alcohol can impact your immune system by disrupting the circadian rhythm. In fact, one study found an association between circadian clock genes, necessary for the regulation of circadian rhythms, and chronic drinking. They found that the way messages are passed along pathways in the brain is disrupted by alcohol, and this influences the activity of circadian clock genes and, thus, disturbs circadian rhythm. Circadian clock genes are often seen to be much less active in those who drink excessively.2
Your sleep/wake cycle influences many biological processes in the body including hormone balance, blood sugar control and immune function. Alcohol has the ability to disrupt your sleep cycle, reducing your quality of sleep and making you wake up more often, which can lead to a cascade of other problems that impair immune function.
When you drink alcohol, you may feel that you fall asleep a lot faster. This is in fact the case, as alcohol may cause you to fall into a deep sleep faster; however, during the second half of the night, this sleepy effect wears off.
Alcohol reduces the amount of time we spend in the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. This is the absolute deepest stage of sleep which is most restful and restorative and is thought to boost aspects of cognitive function such as memory, concentration and learning. Disruption to REM sleep may not only cause drowsiness and poor concentration the next day, but may have a detrimental effect on immune response.
Sleep deprivation can suppress immune function, reducing your body's ability to fight infections, meaning you may be more prone to catching a cold or flu. Several studies have shown that if you are sleep-deprived, the level of T-cells in the body, which play a main role in immune response, decreases and the level of inflammatory cytokines goes up. Inflammatory cytokines promote inflammation in the body and this is associated with illness or infection, meaning lack of sleep could potentially lead to greater risk of becoming sick.
Sleep loss may also affect the way our bodies fight illnesses, if we come down with them. One way in which our bodies fight infection is by temporarily increasing body temperature, known as a fever. Fevers tend to rise during the night to tackle the infection more efficiently; however, if you are waking up often throughout the night, this fever response is not as effective.
Lack of sleep may also increase the risk of more serious conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research suggests that those with disrupted sleep patterns may have higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is an inflammatory marker linked to both conditions.3
Another factor influencing sleep and alcohol intake is stress. Stress can often have an indirect effect on the immune system as, when people are stressed, they may use unhealthy coping strategies to reduce or control their feelings, such as increasing their alcohol intake.
Drinking more can negatively affect sleep patterns as discussed previously, and stress adds to this problem. If you are stressed, you may lie in bed feeling anxious and worried, which can make it impossible to relax and fall asleep.
If you don't get enough sleep at night, your body produces more stress hormones such as corticosteroid, which suppresses the efficiency of the immune system. This is because the chemicals in the brain associated with deep sleep are also the ones that tell your body to stop producing stress hormones. Therefore, if you don't sleep well, your body will continue to produce these hormones, and the cycle continues.
Prolonged levels of high stress can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, stomach issues and weakened immune system. So, increased alcohol intake, disrupted sleep patterns and stress are all connected, and can all have negative consequences on health.
2. Magnesium deficiency
There is a significant interaction between nutrition and the immune system. Nutrients, including proteins, vitamins and minerals, are fundamental for proper body function, including the function of the immune system. Heavy alcohol consumption, however, can result in malnutrition, which carries an increased risk of liver disease, pancreatitis and impaired brain function.
Alcohol can disrupt the body's ability to absorb and metabolise nutrients properly. This, paired with a decrease in food intake frequently seen in heavy drinkers, can result in deficiencies of vitamins A, C, D, E, K and the B vitamins, which are all involved in maintaining healthy cells in the body, and wound healing.
Deficiencies of minerals such as iron, zinc and calcium can also be found in those who drink heavily. One mineral which is often affected by over-drinking, and is also strongly related to the proper function of the immune system, is magnesium. Mineral deficiencies often occur secondary to other alcohol-related issues. In the case of magnesium, deficiency usually occurs due to lack of dietary intake, increased urine output, vomiting, and diarrhoea.4
Research has shown that magnesium deficit in the body is connected to impaired immune function. Low levels of magnesium can lead to changes in the immune system pathways, which can prevent infections being dealt with efficiently.
If you want to boost your magnesium intake, there are a variety of foods you can incorporate into your diet that are high in this mineral, such as:
- Nuts, including almonds, cashews and brazil nuts
- Legumes, including lentils, beans and chickpeas
- Dark chocolate.
Our Balance Mineral Drink provides an easily-absorbed source of magnesium, alongside other essential nutrients including zinc, calcium, potassium and vitamin D. It can be great at reducing fatigue and tiredness, which may be handy if you are suffering from a few too many drinks the night before!
3. Upper and lower respiratory tract infections
Respiratory infections can affect the sinuses, throat, airways or lungs.5 As previously discussed, high alcohol consumption can increase your likelihood of developing some upper respiratory tract infections such as the common cold, flu, sinus infections and tonsillitis.
However, because drinking alcohol makes it easier for bacteria to move from the upper part of the respiratory tract into the lungs, there is also a risk of developing lower respiratory tract infections, such as bronchitis, chest infections and pneumonia, which can be more serious.
Mechanisms which provide defence against bugs and bacteria, running from the nose to the lungs, are negatively affected by excessive alcohol use. In addition, alcohol inhibits the ability of immune cells in the lungs to kill bacteria; plus, it suppresses the normal acute inflammatory response to infection – so the whole body becomes more vulnerable to illness.6
Alcohol can also disrupt cilia, the tiny hair-like structures along our airways. Cilia work to keep airways clear by carrying mucus towards the mouth so it can be expelled. The mucus contains bacteria, dirt and other foreign particles which have been trapped to avoid causing infection in the body. When alcohol is consumed in excess, the cilia don't work as efficiently, and this can cause bacteria to sit in the airways, which may result in breathing problems and other respiratory tract conditions.
If you want to reduce your chances of developing a cold or flu, particularly at times when you may be consuming more alcohol, you might want to try our Immune Support. It provides a natural source of vitamin C and D, and supports the normal functioning of the immune system.
Managing alcohol intake
There are many easy lifestyle tips which you can follow to try and cut down on your alcohol intake, for example:
- Make a plan – set a limit of how much you are going to drink and how much you are going to spend on alcohol throughout the week
- Let your family and friends know – having support from others is a great way to keep yourself motivated
- Try having smaller measures – enjoy a small bottle of beer rather than a pint, or use smaller wine glasses
- Have lower-strength drinks
- Drink water alongside your alcoholic drink, or alternate between the two
- Try to have several drink-free days each week.
Cutting down and managing alcohol intake can have immediate benefits to health, including increased energy, weight loss and better-looking skin; plus, it can make you feel more refreshed in the mornings.
Long-term benefits include improved mood and sleep, improved heart health and liver function, and enhanced immune system response.
If you are struggling with reducing your alcohol intake, it may be beneficial to visit your doctor and discuss this in more depth.
What you said!
We recently ran a poll to find out how often you drink alcohol. We've crunched the numbers and here are the results.
Results: How often do you drink alcohol?
28.4% of you said that you only drink at the weekends. Good for you! Restricting alcohol to the weekends only can help to reduce overall intake, but don't binge! Make sure you stay within the weekly guidelines for alcohol consumption.