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Alcohol and immunity

Alcohol and Immunity

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Beer, wine and spirits. These three little drinks, and more, have woven themselves into the social and celebratory fabric of our lives. But at what cost? In particular, at what cost to the ability of our immune system to launch an effective defence against invaders? Naturopath Danielle Steedman investigates.

Our immune system is a finely tuned system of specialised cells and tissues providing surveillance and protection against on invading pathogens and rogue cells. The ability of the immune system to provide this vital protection can be affected by external factors, and alcohol consumption has been shown to be one of the major offenders. This appears to be true for acute, moderate and chronic alcohol consumption.

Alcohol can disrupt the immune system in several ways. Research suggests that it has a direct effect on the activity of some cells and organs of the immune system. In addition to this the production of some immune cells is even inhibited, as is the ability of immune cells to detect foreign invaders and stick to them.

Not only does alcohol have this direct affect on immunity, but it also affects our nutritional status. When we drink our choice of food tends to be of the less than healthy variety and our nutrient intake is reduced. Alcohol intake also impairs absorption, utilisation, storage and excretion of nutrients and these effects on our nutritional status can further compromise our immunity.

The nutritional impact of alcohol is also related to the body’s reduced ability to metabolise nutrients in the presence of alcohol. For instance, thiamine’s (vitamin B1) conversion from the inactive to the active form, as well as the utilisation of the active form is reduced in the presence of alcohol.

Chronic alcohol consumption reduces the capacity of the gastrointestinal tract to act as an effective barrier that filters the absorption of foreign particles. In addition, alcohol disrupts the balance of gut flora and reduces gastric acid production, reducing front line defence against foreign bodies being absorbed into the circulation. This can result in an increased rate of infection.

Many of these negative effects from alcohol consumption really become a problem when drinking becomes “chronic” consumption. However some research has suggested that even social drinking can reduce the ability of immune cells to clear cells infected with a virus or cells that are acting suspiciously, leaving drinkers more vulnerable to infection, particularly if they have a compromised immune system before starting to drink.

All in all, a pretty scary picture. So, even if just a ‘social’ drinker, it’s worth considering how alcohol may impact your immunity. Acute and chronic alcohol use has profound modulatory effects on the immune system. Luckily, while these effects seem to be transient when drinking is acute, these effects on the immune system should really make each and every drink a considered choice, rather than just a habit or a social activity.