Imbibing in an alcoholic beverage is a favorite past-time for millions over the course of human existence. It helps to take the edge off after a particularly stressful day/week. Plus, certain beverages simply taste great and/or enhance the taste and enjoyment of food (e.g. wine & cheese, scotch & cigars, etc.).
In moderation, enjoying an adult beverage has been associated with some beneficial effects. However, excessive intake of alcohol (ethanol) is associated with deleterious consequences, including liver damage, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and an increased risk of all-cause mortality.[1,2,3]
One aspect of alcohol consumption that isn’t discussed quite as prevalently is the impact alcohol intake has on your immune system. Today, we discuss the effects alcohol has on the body’s native defense network and how much is too much.
First, let’s briefly touch upon how long alcoholic beverages have been a part of human history.
Alcohol Across Human History
It bears mentioning that alcohol is not an essential macronutrient, meaning you could go your entire lifetime without enjoying beer, wine, or liquor and suffer no adverse effects. In other words, if you abstain from alcohol your entire life, you wouldn’t suffer any deleterious cardiometabolic or athletic performance consequences.
That being said, consuming some form of alcoholic beverage (beer, wine, bourbon, etc.) has played an influential role in human history. In fact, between 3,000-2,000 BC, Meopotamians brewed beer, and archaeologists have found 20+ beer recipes inscribed on clay tablets.
Despite its long history of use, alcohol has both brought groups of people (including families) together as well as created division and strife.This largely hinges upon how much an individual consumes, the circumstances in which the alcohol is consumed, and their genetics.
Modern research suggests that consuming small-to-moderate amounts of alcohol is associated with increased longevity and better quality of life, while drinking excessively is linked to numerous adverse health outcomes. So, how does alcohol impact immune function?
Alcohol & Immune System Function
Simply put, excessive alcohol intake significantly reduces the body’s ability to protect itself from infection and disease.
Drinking too much (>2 “standard” drinks for men, and >1 “standard” drink for women), even over the course of a single day/night, delays the body’s ability to combat infection…even up to 24 hours after drinking a bit too much.
It begins in your gut -- alcohol is a stomach/GI irritant, and the more you imbibe, the more stress you place upon your GI system. While this may seem innocuous, the reality is that the GI tract and gut microbiome play a HUGE role in immune system function (not to mention total body health, mood, and performance). As the body metabolizes alcohol (ethanol) free radicals are generated, which can alter the composition (make-up) of the gut bacteria, affect their expression of helpful metabolites, including butyrate, and promote inflammation.
FYI, butyrate is a critically important short-chain fatty acid (SCFA) that benefits gut barrier integrity (“leaky gut”), mood, metabolism, and cognitive function.
Furthermore, excessive alcohol intake as well as consuming alcoholic beverages too close to sleep can result in sleep disruption, insomnia, and dehydration -- all of which contribute to a weakened immune system.
The Bottom Line on Alcohol and Your Immune System Function
Alcohol is a nonessential macronutrient -- it contains calories that are commonly overlooked (not tracked) by most individuals. In moderate amounts, imbibing is unlikely to affect your immune system. However, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol not only impairs host defense and can sabotage your transformation challenge progress, but places your overall health and well-being in jeopardy.
- Ding, C., O’Neill, D., Bell, S. et al. Association of alcohol consumption with morbidity and mortality in patients with cardiovascular disease: original data and meta-analysis of 48,423 men and women. BMC Med 19, 167 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-021-02040-2
- Patel R, Mueller M. Alcoholic Liver Disease. [Updated 2022 Oct 24]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK546632/
- Topiwala, A., Ebmeier, K. P., Maullin-Sapey, T., & Nichols, T. E. (2021). No safe level of alcohol consumption for brain health: observational cohort study of 25,378 UK Biobank participants. MedRxiv, 2021.05.10.21256931. https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.05.10.21256931
- Rosso, A. (2012). Beer And Wine In Antiquity: Beneficial Remedy Or Punishment Imposed By The Gods? Acta Medical History, 10(2);237—262.