Your immune system protects you against infectious disease, and when you do get sick, it helps neutralize the virus, bacteria, or other pathogen that’s responsible.
And a weakened immune system increases your risk of illness as well as the severity of infections.
Not only that, but your overall wellness also affects the strength of your immune system. That’s why smart habits like exercising, getting plenty of sleep, and eating a healthy diet reduce your chances of getting sick.
But what about alcohol? Does drinking compromise your immune function?
Right now, plenty of people are seeking stress relief and camaraderie through “virtual happy hours” or “quarantinis.”
In this article, we explore the science of alcohol and immunity, the effect drinking may have on your risk of novel coronavirus disease, and the relationship between alcohol and health.
Alcohol consumption affects your whole body, starting with your gastrointestinal tract.
When you take a drink, it affects the structure and other properties of your stomach lining as the alcohol absorbs[*].
Concerningly, some research shows people who drink more than 1-2 drinks daily have less-diverse, less-healthy gut bacteria compared to people who drink less. And as you may already know, your gut flora are an essential part of your immune system[*].
As a result, chronic drinking may have adverse effects on your digestion as well as your immune function[*].
Additionally, alcohol also impairs the ability of your microbiome to communicate with your intestinal immune system[*].
Lastly, even before it circulates throughout your body, alcohol also compromises the function of essential immune cells called neutrophils (a type of white blood cell) and T cells in your gut[*].
And for chronic drinkers, the systemic effects are equally concerning.
For example, people who habitually drink too much have a higher risk of HIV transmission and progression, increased cancer risk, greater odds of liver disease, and heightened chances of problems like pneumonia, sepsis, and postoperative complications if they’re hospitalized[*].
Fortunately, the effects of alcohol also depend on how much and how often you drink.
But before we investigate the relationship between the number of drinks you consume and your immune health, let’s dive into the possible effects of alcohol on your risk of contracting COVID-19.
First of all, there’s a myth circulating on the internet that drinking vodka or other strong liquor reduces your chances of contracting COVID-19.
Back in February, someone even asked the World Health Organization (WHO), “Does drinking alcohol prevent the new coronavirus?”
According to a 2020 scientific review from the Journal of Hospital Infection, ethanol (alcohol) in concentrations of 62% or higher does kill viruses like the novel coronavirus on hands and surfaces[*].
However, the virus-killing effect of strong alcohol doesn’t apply to taking shots.
And if you do want to use vodka or another spirit for sanitizing, make sure it’s at least 62%.
Myth-busting aside, there’s no direct research on the relationship between alcohol consumption and SARS-CoV2–at least not yet.
Nonetheless, generally speaking, drinking too much lowers your resistance to infection and can increase the symptoms and duration of illness.
For example, according to a 2019 study from the Journal of Immunology, “Chronic alcohol consumption is associated with an increased incidence of disease severity during pulmonary infections”[*].
Based on the study findings, chronic alcohol exposure seems to make immune cells “forget” how to fight infections, even when they’ve previously encountered a virus.
Also, a 2016 review from the journal Alcohol found that both short- and long-term alcohol exposure change the way that cilia (microscopic hair-like structures that help keep your lungs clean) function[*].
Over time, excessive alcohol leads to cellular stress and inflammation, which increases the risk of pneumonia and other lung health issues[*].
Basically, there’s a strong chance that unhealthy drinking behaviors can impair your innate immunity, increasing your risk of novel coronavirus disease.
And if you do get COVID-19, alcohol abuse could also worsen your symptoms since it impairs adaptive immunity[*].
So far, we’ve painted a fairly dire picture of what happens to your health and immune system when you drink.
That said, the amount and frequency of alcohol consumption also play a role in its effects on your immunity.
Some researchers even think “light to moderate amounts of polyphenol-rich alcoholic beverages like wine or beer could have health benefits,” including immune benefits, when compared to heavy drinking or no drinking[*].
How much alcohol are we talking about, exactly?
According to the 2007 review referenced above, consuming 3-4 polyphenol-rich drinks per day (like wine or beer) has no adverse effect or a small benefit on immune function[*].
On the other hand, the same scientists caution that exceeding two drinks per day has other adverse health effects that probably negate any minor immune benefit[*].
And for women, who metabolize alcohol differently, the safe upper limit is one drink per day[*].
Conversely, experts say that if you think you’re becoming ill or notice symptoms of infection, you should avoid even moderate drinking[*].
We’ve already covered the fact that drinking too much, long-term, is terrible for your immunity.
But research also shows that binge drinking–at least four drinks in 2-3 hours for women, or five or more drinks in 2-3 hours for men–can disrupt your immune function immediately[*].
White blood cells called monocytes are involved in both innate and adaptive immunity, and binge drinking reduces their concentration[*].
And the suppression effect could last 24 hours or longer.
Therefore, if you care about avoiding COVID-19 and other infections, binge drinking is off-limits.
Additionally, binge drinking and other problem drinking patterns can increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, liver disease, and other chronic health problems[*].
Another important fact to keep in mind is that social distancing, quarantine, and other forms of isolation may lead some people to drink more.
Loneliness is a significant factor behind problem drinking and substance abuse, so now is the perfect time to get in touch with friends or family members and check in[*].
Or, if you’re dealing with a substance-related issue, the National Drug Helpline at 1-844-289-0879 offers 24/7 drug and alcohol help for anyone who’s struggling.
The bottom line is that moderate alcohol use may boost your immune function, but binge drinking and other types of alcohol abuse appear to have the opposite effect.
And while it may be tempting to use alcohol to numb loneliness or enjoy virtual happy hours, drinking too much could compromise your overall health as well as predispose you to the novel coronavirus disease.
Instead of reaching for that third or fourth drink, consider reaching out to friends or loved ones with a phone call or video call.
Finally, according to most experts, some people should steer clear of alcohol altogether[*].
If you’re pregnant, take medications that interact with alcohol, or have certain medical conditions (such as liver disease), the safest strategy is to avoid alcohol altogether.
For more immune system insights, plus useful immune-boosting tips, read Keto and The Immune System: How Ketosis Might Help and Do Carbohydrates Boost or Harm Your Immune System?.