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The Effect Of Alcohol Use On The Immune System

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The immune system is made up of several different kinds of cells and proteins, each with specific functions in regulating human health. The primary cells involved in this process are B- and T-cells, each playing its own unique role in the process of destroying the DNA of invading cells. In some cases, alcohol reduces the number of these cells, and in other cases, it can turn this vital system against healthy cells in the body, leading to autoimmune disorders.

Those who consume alcohol at higher-than-moderate levels experience double the rate of pneumonia, and increased rate of tuberculosis, hepatitis C, and cancer, as well as greater exposure to hepatitis B, HIV, and other infections.

Acute Alcohol Consumption And Adverse Immune System Response

Most of the discussion on the topic of immunodeficiency and alcohol centers around long-term, chronic alcohol consumption. And yet, someone who participates in binge drinking, even once per month, or moderate consumption, may be susceptible to the ill-effects of alcohol on immune system health.

Alcohol interferes with the chemical signals from white blood cells called cytokines, which can cause an autoimmune response if produced in larger than normal quantities, or an immune system deficiency in cases when these levels are decreased. Alcohol consumption also disrupts normal T-cell function, leaving someone at greater risk of bacterial and viral infection. A single episode of binge drinking can result in an immune system failure against exposure to illness within the first 24-hours of initial consumption.

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Chronic Drinking And Immunodeficiency

Chronic consumption of alcohol impairs the vital immune system to a great degree. Individuals who consume alcohol regularly and at higher levels than the liver can process it shows increased levels of immunoglobulins within their bloodstream, indicating an autoimmune response.

Immunoglobulins, or antibodies, are proteins that seek to identify or “mark” bacteria and viruses for white B-cells and T-cells to target. In the case of chronic alcoholism, these cells may begin to mark healthy cells in the body, throwing this intricate and vital system into an autoimmune response, or self-destructive mode.

Another effect of long-term alcohol exposure is a deficient immune response, due to the interruption of normal immune system function. In these cases, a person may suffer reduced levels of white cells, leaving them far more susceptible to illness and disease. Alcohol and immunodeficiency have long been correlated, though the mechanism for this process is still being studied.

Alcohol Consumption And Disease

Chronic alcohol consumption is associated with many dangerous diseases, including pneumonia, tuberculosis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B and C, septicemia and other infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.

Not only does alcohol impair the immune system, but it can also lead to other conditions, like leaky gut syndrome, in which bacteria from the bowel seep or “leak” through the walls of the intestines. These bacteria can lead to infection.

  • Pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • HIV
  • Hepatitis B and C
  • Septicemia
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cancer
  • Leaky gut syndrome

Alcohol, Acetaldehyde, And Cancer

For decades, researchers have known of the correlation between increased rates of certain cancers and problem drinking, but the mechanism by which alcohol causes cancer was not known. Alcohol is not carcinogenic, but once alcohol is metabolized in the bowel and liver, very toxic acetaldehyde is released. Acetaldehyde, also found in tobacco smoke, is a toxic human carcinogen.

Within the intricate immune system are a specialized white cell called natural killer cells (NK). One of the specialized functions of NK cells is there ability to detect and rid the body of cancer. Alcohol is believed to impair NK cell function, leaving the body more vulnerable to malignancies.

Alcohol And Immune System Health

Damage to the immune system from binge drinking or chronic alcohol consumption, in many cases, is reversible. Reducing or stopping consumption of alcohol is a key component, along with a balanced diet. Safe levels of alcohol consumption mean no more than one standard unit of alcohol per day for women, and up to two per day for men. A standard drink is classified as the equivalent of one 12-oz beer or 5-oz glass of wine, though many craft beers may contain higher levels of alcohol on par with wine. Drinking slowly can also provide the liver time to process the alcohol.