How Alcohol Weakens the Immune System

Typically, indigent and homeless alcoholics dwell in crowded and impoverished living conditions. With prolonged exposure, a person is more likely to acquire an active TB infection and subsequently spread the disease by coughing up more infectious droplets for others to inhale. TB outbreaks have occurred in urban homeless shelters and other densely populated residential settings, such as prisons and nursing homes. Kline and colleagues (1995) even reported an outbreak among regular patrons of a neighborhood bar and speculated that heavy alcohol use and a highly infective source could have been contributing factors. These may include infections after surgery, traumatic injury, or burns; accelerated progression of HIV disease; adult respiratory distress syndrome and other opportunistic lung infections; and infection with hepatitis C virus, cirrhosis, or liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma). These observations suggest that immune defects seen in individuals with AUD could also be mediated by nutritional deficiencies in addition to barrier defects and functional changes in immune cells.

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Take our short alcohol quiz to learn where you fall on the drinking spectrum and if you might benefit from quitting or cutting back on alcohol. There are lots of illnesses going around, and we are often stuck indoors—which can also mean excessive eating and drinking. As with most things in life, the arrow points to “moderation” (unless you are in a high-risk group due to poor health or pregnancy).

Alcohol’s Effects on Immunity

Finally, alcohol adversely affects the functions of the cells that mediate the immune response against specific microorganisms and long-term immunity (i.e., T cells and B cells). As a result, alcoholics have an increased susceptibility to diseases caused by bacterial infections, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Alcoholics also may be more susceptible to infections from the virus that causes AIDS. In addition, alcohol intoxication can exacerbate the immune suppression that occurs after traumatic injuries.

Although most research has focused on the effects of heavy alcohol consumption on the immune system, several studies have also confirmed that even moderate consumption can have significant effects on the immune system. For example, one study found that women who consumed 330 mL of beer for 30 days exhibited a significant increase in leukocytes, mature CD3+ T-cells, neutrophils, and basophils. In contrast, men who consumed a similarly moderate amount of beer for the same period exhibited a significant increase in basophils alone. The white blood cells, tissues and organs that make up our body’s immune system are designed to fight off infections, disease and toxins.

Alcohol’s Effects on the Immune Defense

Other studies investigating alcohol’s effects on the susceptibility to infections with Klebsiella pneumoniae and Legionella pneumophila indicated that chronic alcohol treatment suppressed the production and/or function of neutrophils and macrophages. Moreover, treatment with a protein factor that stimulates neutrophil production ameliorated the alcohol-induced immunosuppression by recruiting more neutrophils to the lungs. Researchers also have found, however, that the cytokine gamma-interferon (IFN-γ) plays a critical role in determining whether a Th1- or Th2-type response will dominate in alcohol-exposed monocytes. Recent studies showed that the presence of IFN-γ decreased alcohol-induced IL-10 production, thus canceling IL-10’s inhibition of IL-12 and thereby augmenting cell-mediated (i.e., Th1-type) immunity (Mandrekar et al. 1996; Szabo et al. 1996). This finding supports the demonstration by Flynn and Bloom (1996) that IFN-γ is essential to resistance against TB in mice.

Some of the most notable contributors to the innate immune response include natural killer (NK) cells, neutrophils, monocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells (DCs). The immune system is typically categorized into the innate and adaptive immune response systems, both of which are essential components in the body’s defense against pathogens. These cells carry immune proteins (i.e., antibodies, or immunoglobulins) on their surface that recognize and bind to antigens. Like T cells, each B cell also recognizes only one specific antigen and becomes activated when it comes into contact with it. Most activated B cells develop into so-called plasma cells, which secrete their antibodies into the blood or lymph.

How Alcohol Weakens Your Immune System

The adaptive immune system can be subdivided into cell-mediated immunity, carried out by T cells, and humoral immunity, carried out by B cells. T cells expressing the CD4 T cell co-receptor are known as T helper cells and play a critical role in the activation and maturation of monocytes, cytotoxic T cells and B cells. T cells expressing the CD8 T cell co-receptor are known as cytotoxic T cells and eliminate host cells infected with intracellular pathogens as well as tumor cells. B cells mature into plasma cells that produce does alcohol suppress your immune system antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins (Ig), to eliminate extracellular microorganisms and prevent the spread of infection. The adaptive immune response can be distinguished from innate immunity by the capability of generating immunological memory, or protective immunity against recurring disease caused by the same pathogen (Janeway 2008). The ability of alcohol to alter both innate and adaptive immune defenses inevitably impacts how the immune system of even a moderate alcohol drinker can respond to infections.

This cytokine directly inhibits mycobacterial growth in vitro, recruits additional inflammatory cells, and induces the action of other antimycobacterial mediators (e.g., nitric oxide and reactive oxygen radicals). This article briefly reviews the main features and components of the immune system and summarizes some of the consequences and mechanisms of alcohol use on the body’s defense against pathogens. Alcoholic beverages are energy dense and often become the primary energy source in those with AUD, leading to malnutrition. Individuals with AUD are often deficient in one or more essential nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, folate, and thiamine (Hoyumpa 1986).

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