Does Alcohol Harm Your Immune System?

Edwina Clark
by Edwina Clark
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Does Alcohol Harm Your Immune System?

If you’ve ever indulged in a bit too much wine or one too many cocktails, you know alcohol — especially in excess — has some unpleasant gastrointestinal (GI) side effects. Since gut health is important for supporting your immune system, this can lead to weakened immunity and other negative side effects.

Here’s what you need to know about how alcohol plays a role.

ALCOHOL METABOLISM AND YOUR GUT

Most alcohol is metabolized by your stomach and liver, however, a small proportion is cleared by the gut. As alcohol consumption increases, the proportion of alcohol metabolized by your gut also increases. In other words, the more you drink, the more pressure you put on your gut to process alcohol.

Gut metabolism of alcohol produces free radicals that can damage the cells of the GI tract and studies suggest alcohol can lead to changes in your microbiome and intestinal inflammation. Having a healthy microbiome has been tied to weight loss and even better sleep. The gut is an important protective layer between the outside world and our bloodstream, and even small changes in permeability and function (caused by free radicals from metabolizing alcohol) appear to negatively impact other systems such as the liver, brain and immune defenses.

Moreover, many people with inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) report alcohol triggers their symptoms.

IMMUNITY AND ALCOHOL

Research suggests even in moderate amounts (usually defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks for men), alcohol impairs immunity through various mechanisms such as promoting inflammation, altering gut function and the microbiome, reducing barrier integrity in the lungs and blocking anti-inflammatory mechanisms. What’s more, alcohol can impair sleep and lead to dehydration, two factors that can further weaken the immune system.

THE BOTTOM LINE

We still have a lot to learn about the relationship between alcohol, the GI tract and immunity. That said, if you choose to drink, limit your consumption to one standard drink a day for women or two standard drinks a day for men, or less, to minimize health risks, including GI inflammation. If you have a particularly sensitive gut or a pre-existing condition such as IBD or IBS, you may need to cut your alcohol consumption even further. Make sure to prioritize a well-balanced diet with gut-friendly foods, move your body regularly and get quality sleep to best support your immune system and overall health.

About the Author

Edwina Clark
Edwina Clark

Edwina is a pioneer for dietitians in innovation and has worked for a number of startups as a nutrition strategist, brand spokesperson, and content creator. She is formerly the Head of Nutrition and Wellness at Yummly, where she was responsible for developing nutrition solutions for over 28 million users. Prior to working in tech, Edwina worked in corporate wellness for EXOS, serving clients such as State Street, Google Europe, and Intel. She is a prominent media dietitian and has been featured in SELF, Women’s Health, and Teen Vogue, among others. Edwina hails from Sydney, Australia and is dually credentialed as a dietitian in the US and her home country. She is a former captain of the Boston University Track and Field Team and a Certified Specialty Sports Dietitian. In her free time, you can find Edwina blogging on edwinaclark.com, running, and planning her next travel adventure

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