HOUSTON: Drinking too much alcohol not only increases your risk for liver damage, but also weakens your immune system, leaving your body ripe for infections. This can increase the chances of long-term illness, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Even one bout of binge drinking leaves you at higher risk for infection for about 24 hours.
“It is well documented that drinking more than three drinks in one day on most days of the week or drinking more than five drinks on any day is damaging to the immune system,” says Amitava Dasgupta, a professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at McGovern Medical School, UTHealth in Houston. “Alcohol damages the ability of your immune system to fight viral infections. In fact, both the Surgeon General and the World Health Organization advise anyone at high risk for COVID-19 to avoid alcohol because it increases your risk for infection.”
Alcohol has been also linked to increased risk for complications from surgery, decreased ability to fight cancer, and prolonged recovery from injury or illness, according to Dr. Chris Iliades, writing for Livestrong.
The NIAAA states that alcohol damages the immune system by upsetting the delicate balance of helpful and harmful bacteria in your gut that is essential for immune system function. It can also allow microbes to leak from your damaged gut to reach the liver and interfere with its function. Heavy drinking may reduce immune system cells, such as white blood cells. This can increase your risk for viral and bacterial infections, says Iliades.
“Alcohol also destroys the protective lining inside your respiratory tract that your immune system uses to prevent upper respiratory tract infections like the common cold,” says Dasgupta. The NIAAA defines moderate drinking as one drink daily for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
Dasgupta says that while there is no evidence that moderate drinking harms the immune system, he recommends sticking to wine or beer instead of hard liquor because they have a lower percentage of alcohol that can kill gut bacteria.
“The only remedy for an immune system damaged from drinking alcohol is to stop drinking,” he says. “If you are not able to drink in moderation, you should avoid alcohol.” People over the age of 65 should be especially careful as they are at a higher risk of immune system damage, says Livestrong.
“Immune system recovery depends on how long you have been drinking, how much you drink and how much damage you have done to your liver,” says Dasgupta. “Although your immune system may recover over time, at some point, liver damage becomes irreversible, and your immune system will not recover.”