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How Alcohol Impacts Your Immune System

Authored by Granite Recovery Centers    Reviewed by James Gamache    Last Updated: September 3rd, 2021


James Gamache Medical Reviewer
Jim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) and Licensed Masters Level Addictions Counselor (MLADC). He has been working in the field of mental health/addiction treatment since 1995. Jim earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services from Springfield College in 2000, and a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University in 2002. In 2002 Jim was hired by the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester holding the position of Clinical Case Manager. From 2004-2019, Jim was employed at WestBridge Inc. During his time at WestBridge, Jim held the following positions; Clinician, Team Leader, Director, & Chief Operations Officer. In 2019 Jim transitioned employment to GateHouse Treatment Center as the Clinical Director for 10 months. In October of 2020 Jim transitioned to Granite Recovery Centers and is currently serving as the Senior VP of Clinical Services and Quality Assurance.

You probably already know that drinking large amounts of alcohol is not healthy. Most people know about its potential to damage the brain and that it can increase your chances of getting cancer. But did you know that alcohol can suppress your immune system as well? With your immune system suppressed, you’ll be left more vulnerable to mild illnesses like the common cold and more serious infections.

Alcohol and immune system

What Are the Short-Term Effects on the Immune System?

It may come as a surprise that you don’t have to be a chronic heavy drinker for alcohol use to suppress your immune system. Even one instance of heavy drinking or binge drinking can negatively affect your immune system for up to 24 hours.

But how does drinking manage to do this? Its effects on the immune system come from a few different factors. One is the fact that your body will prioritize breaking down alcohol over other functions. When your body metabolizes food, it has a place to store it. That isn’t the case with alcohol, so your body needs to break it down immediately. This process takes precedence over your body’s ability to fight off infections.

If you are exposed to a virus or a bacterial disease while drinking, you may be more likely to fall ill. Your immune system fights off pathogens every day, but when it’s suppressed, it may not be able to successfully rid your body of particles that may cause disease. The more you drink, the longer your body needs to work at breaking down the alcohol. During that time, you’ll be at increased risk for infection, and, as noted above, your immune system could remain suppressed even after the alcohol is metabolized.

Alcohol Effects on Sleep

The second factor of drinking’s effect on your immune system involves sleep. When you’re drinking heavily, you often get less sleep, and the sleep you do get tends to not be as restful. When your sleep is negatively impacted like this, your immune system won’t function optimally. Adequate, restful sleep can enhance the activity of cells known as T cells. T cells fight against pathogens, including viral particles. When they function well, they’re more likely to rid your body of harmful particles before they have a chance to make you sick.

Poor sleep quality has also been correlated with depression and other mental health problems. Both issues have been linked to increased inflammation in the body, and poor sleep can cause trouble regulating emotions, which can, in turn, make depression and other mental health disorders more difficult to manage.

If you are suffering from a mental health diagnosis (or if you think you may be) along with alcohol use, Granite Recovery Center’s dual diagnosis program can help. In this program, trained professionals work with you to manage your mental health and alcohol use concurrently. Since alcohol use tends to make mental health diagnoses worse and since mental health diagnoses increase your risk of an alcohol use disorder, this holistic treatment approach gives you a much better chance of long-term recovery.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Immune System?

Chronic alcohol use does more than temporarily suppress your immune system; it can lead to serious health complications. Alcoholics are often deficient in vitamin B6, a vitamin that is incredibly important for the efficacy of your immune system. Your body’s B6 levels don’t bounce back after each bout of drinking, so a B6 deficiency leaves you vulnerable to diseases all the time. Many alcoholics are also deficient in folate, another B vitamin that helps support the immune system.

Heavy alcohol consumption also makes it harder for B-lymphocytes to function. B-lymphocytes are the white blood cells responsible for making antibodies, and antibodies are the cells that actively fight infection. With these white blood cells chronically impaired, you’re much less likely to be able to fight off infections.

Another little-known way alcohol consumption can affect your immune system is through the gut. In people who drink heavily, the intestinal lining becomes thinner and more permeable, leading to what’s known as leaky gut syndrome. Doctors don’t know much about leaky gut syndrome or how to treat it, but continuing research may have more concrete answers soon. Leaky gut syndrome makes it easier for disease-causing bacteria to overtake the “good” bacteria in your gut, leaving you more prone to infections.

Liver Damage from Alcohol Abuse

Of course, most people know that heavy alcohol consumption can cause serious liver damage, and your liver is one of the most vital parts of your immune system. It’s the organ responsible for removing harmful substances from your body. However, if you drink heavily, metabolizing alcohol causes damage to the liver over time.

The good news is that if you stop early enough, your liver may be able to heal and return to normal function. The first stage of liver damage is known as fatty liver, where your body deposits more fat than is healthy onto the liver. But when you stop drinking entirely, the fatty liver will usually go away completely.

However, if fatty liver goes unchecked and you drink heavily, it may become liver fibrosis. Liver fibrosis involves the growth of fibroids on the liver. In addition to impairing the function of your liver, liver fibrosis may lead to confusion, chills, vomiting blood, yellowing eyes and/or skin, and other disruptive symptoms.

Liver Cirrhosis

If someone with liver fibrosis continues drinking heavily, they may develop alcoholic cirrhosis, the most serious type of liver damage. Cirrhosis is not reversible, and the liver is so damaged that a patient almost always needs a transplant to survive.

Most people with alcohol use disorder have at least some immune system damage, but the good news is that many types of damage are reversible if you stop drinking entirely. If you complete treatment at Granite Recovery Center and want additional support in leading a healthy lifestyle and repairing any existing damage, you might want to look into our sober living options. Sober living lets you live much more independently than you would in a residential treatment program, but you still receive recovery support to optimize your chances for long-term recovery.

What Diseases Can Alcohol Use Cause?

Although heavy alcohol use involves immune system suppression, it seems to place alcohol users at higher risk of some health conditions than others. One of these conditions is pneumonia. The connection between alcohol use disorder and pneumonia is well-established; a study done in 1923 discovered that those with an alcohol use disorder were twice as likely to die of pneumonia as those without the disorder.

But why pneumonia? Most of us know that smoking tends to cause issues with the lungs, but many people don’t associate drinking with lung disease. Some alcohol users’ proclivity for developing pneumonia is due to the suppression of the immune system. Still, researchers believe those with an alcohol use disorder are less likely to rid their lungs of disease-causing particles.

Those with an alcohol use disorder are also more vulnerable to several other diseases, and some of them are relatively uncommon. One of these is tuberculosis, another lung disease. Alcohol use may make you more likely to develop urinary tract infections, septicemia, meningitis, lung abscesses, and even diphtheria.

Cancer Risk from Alcohol

Continued research has also discovered that alcohol use increases your risk for several different types of cancer. In some cases, cancer risk increases even with light to moderate drinking. Thus far, scientists have gathered evidence confirming that alcohol use increases your risk for the following cancers:

  • Breast cancer
  • Cancers of the head and neck
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

Researchers don’t know how alcohol use increases cancer risk conclusively, but a likely cause is the body’s inability to break down and use certain nutrients that decrease cancer risk. In the case of breast cancer, continued alcohol use increases estrogen levels in the body, and increased estrogen has been linked to breast cancer. Additionally, when the body breaks down the ethanol in alcoholic drinks, it is converted to acetaldehyde, a chemical that can damage DNA and proteins. Acetaldehyde is also believed to be a carcinogen.

Oxidative Stress from Alcohol Use

An oxidative stress process may also be partially responsible for the higher risk of cancer in those with an alcohol use disorder. Oxidative stress occurs when your body has more free radicals than antioxidants. Free radicals are smaller particles that tend to be extremely chemically reactive in the body. They aren’t always harmful, but they can drastically increase your risk of cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure when they are. They can even increase your risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. Every person has some free radicals in their body, but heavy alcohol use tends to create more free radicals, leading to increased oxidative stress.

If you are looking for help for an alcohol use disorder for yourself or a loved one, you may be worried or discouraged by the negative health effects of alcohol. But now is the best time to get help. The best way to reduce your risk for cancers and other health conditions is to stop drinking, and you don’t have to stop drinking alone.

Will My Immune System Return to Normal When I Stop Drinking?

While alcohol use can cause serious problems with your immune system, the good news is that those effects are rarely permanent. Your immune system isn’t likely to bounce back completely in a day, but as time passes, it will return to normal functioning. To help your body return to normal, you may want to supplement with B vitamins, magnesium, and other vitamins and minerals that you may have been deficient in while drinking. Of course, always be sure to ask your doctor before starting or modifying your supplementation regimen. In some cases, your doctor may recommend an injection of vitamin B6. In injection form, the vitamin is often absorbed more successfully.

Are You Drinking Too Much?

We’ve explained that heavy drinking can impact your immune system. But what is heavy drinking? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism offers some guidance. The institute defines “moderate drinking” as up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

It defines “heavy alcohol use” as more than four drinks daily for men and more than three drinks on any day for women. To evaluate how much you’re drinking, it can be helpful to understand what the NIAA defines as a “standard drink.” A standard drink contains about 14 grams of pure ethanol.

Here’s what that looks like in terms of different alcoholic drinks:

  • 12 ounces of beer (or of a wine cooler)
  • 8-9 ounces of malt liquor
  • 5 ounces of table wine
  • 1.5 ounces of hard liquor

These amounts will vary depending on the percentage of alcohol in the exact beverages you are drinking. However, it’s a good general guide to assess your current alcohol use.

Are You Ready to Change Your Life?

If you suffer from alcohol use disorder, you may feel like there’s no hope at all because you can’t live with alcohol, and you can’t live without it. While recovering from an addiction is nearly impossible to do yourself, having the support of a community of trained professionals can make an incredible difference. If you’re ready to take that critical first step toward a better life, Granite Recovery Centers can help. We offer residential treatment, intensive outpatient programs, and structured sober living facilities for those looking to change their lives.

At Granite Recovery Centers, we want to provide accurate information about health and addiction so that our readers can make informed decisions.

We have credentialed medical doctors & clinicians who specialize in addiction treatment review the information on our website before it is published. We use credible sources such as government websites and journal articles when citing statistics or other medically related topics.