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How does alcohol affect the immune system?

Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy on November 17, 2023

Excessive drinking suppresses your immune system and weakens key immune cells that combat infection. It leaves you prone to pneumonia, flu, TB, and other illnesses. 

Read more to find out why heavy drinking and immune health just aren’t compatible.

Table of Contents

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Why is a healthy immune system important?

The immune system is the body’s defense against infection and disease. It’s made up of different specialized forces such as cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect your body.

Let’s meet your immune system’s defense team.

  • White blood cells (e.g., lymphocytes and phagocytes) circulate and detect foreign invaders such as bacteria or viruses. They engulf and destroy pathogens and infected cells.
  • Lymph nodes are small glands located throughout the body that filter lymph fluid. They trap pathogens and prevent them from spreading to other areas.
  • The spleen is an organ that filters blood and contains disease-fighting white blood cells. It produces antibodies and eliminates old red blood cells.
  • Bone marrow produces stem cells that develop into other types of blood cells to generate new immune cells.
  • The thymus is a gland where T lymphocytes mature. It “trains” T cells to recognize foreign invaders so they can coordinate the immune response.
  • Complement proteins trigger cell lysis and mark pathogens for destruction by immune cells. They play a key role in both innate and adaptive immunity.
  • Cytokines are chemical messengers released by immune cells to coordinate the immune response. They signal immune cells to respond to a threat.

All the key components of your immune system “talk” to each other about the best plan to eliminate the threat.

How does the immune system work?

Immune cells identify threats by recognizing the structures common to bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. This triggers cell signaling cascades that enable your defenses to engulf invaders, release antibodies to mark them for destruction and activate other immune cells.

This is how it works:

  1. Your immune cells identify any shady characters trying to cause trouble in your body. They are always on patrol, scanning for stuff that doesn’t belong.
  2. They look for certain protein patterns. This way, they can tell the good guys from the bad guys. Anything foreign gets flagged right away so the immune squad can swarm in.
  3. Once a threat gets identified, cells called phagocytes rush in to surround and engulf invaders to destroy them. 
  4. Other defender cells release chemicals to break down invaders, signal more forces to join the fight and get directions on where to attack. 
  5. There are “memory” cells in your immune system that remember past invaders. T and B lymphocytes retain information about previous enemies. When an old infectious threat returns, the memory cells quickly activate and produce tailored antibodies to destroy that specific pathogen, providing long-term protection against recurrent infections.

As you can see, your immune system is a complex team effort to neutralize anything that could make you sick. These defenders work 24/7 and are ready to deploy within minutes if a threat arises. That’s why a healthy immune system is vital.

Your immune system has dual branches working together to keep you healthy: innate and adaptive immunity.

What do innate and adaptive immune systems do?

Your innate immunity is composed of general defenses that kick in faster once a foreign body is detected. Your skin, for example, provides a physical barrier so germs can’t get it, while chemicals inside your body immediately destroy as many intruders as possible on contact.

Then there’s adaptive immunity. These are specialized forces trained to identify and target specific threats. Adaptive immunity remembers previous offenders so it can quickly round them up if they sneak back in.

The innate teams provide a rapid first line of defense that works on any intruder. Adaptive immunity allows a precision counterattack against pathogens the body has encountered before. Together they make a powerful protection network.

A healthy immune system also maintains proper inflammatory balance as too much or too little inflammation can damage health.

How does the immune system regulate inflammation?

Inflammation is the source of many serious conditions, but it’s actually your immune system’s way of healing your body after an injury or fighting an infection. When you get a cut or the flu, your body calls in an inflammatory team to handle the situation. Blood vessels open up so immune cells can rush to the scene. The area gets hot, painful, and swollen as your defenses attack the problem.

This controlled inflammatory response is crucial for destroying bacteria, removing damaged or dead cells, and starting repairs. Your immune system sends chemical messages to turn it on at the right time and place. But inflammation needs to get shut back down once the job is done. Uncontrolled inflammation can do more harm than good by damaging healthy cells and tissues.

To put the brakes on uncontrolled fire in your body, the immune system releases other chemicals and prevents damage—while still allowing helpful inflammation to neutralize the threat.

When immune function is impaired, this balance gets thrown off. Alcohol is one of the main causes of chronic inflammation in the body. Heavy drinking triggers a cascade of inflammation that damages healthy tissue over time. Unchecked inflammation degrades organs, joints, and even blood vessels.

Quitting alcohol is incredibly challenging, but absolutely critical if you want to preserve your health. It may seem impossible to break this cycle of addiction and protect your well-being at the same time. Ardu is here to guide you through alcohol detox, help you manage cravings, and build skills for long-term recovery. 

How does alcohol affect immune cells?

Alcohol impairs immune function in all sorts of ways. A 2015 study found an “association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects.”

Here’s how excessive alcohol consumption destroys your immune cells:

  1. Alcohol suppresses the activation, proliferation, and phagocytic activity of crucial white blood cells such as lymphocytes and neutrophils. This hinders their ability to identify and destroy pathogens. According to research, in people with alcohol liver disease (ALD), immune cells in the liver, called Kupffer cells, get activated and release inflammatory substances due to alcohol and signals from bacteria. Phagocytic activity may be affected as alcohol can lead to changes in the function of Kupffer cells, impacting their ability to perform this crucial task in the liver.
  2. It inhibits the production of antibodies by B lymphocytes. You need antibodies to mark foreign invaders for other immune cells. Insufficient antibody levels allow threats to go undetected.
  3. Alcohol abuse messes with a particular type of white blood cell called polymorphonuclear leukocytes (PMN). These are like the first responders of your immune system: they jump into action when there’s an infection or inflammation. Alcohol seems to hinder PMNs from getting to where they’re needed in the body during an infection or inflammation.

Alcohol abuse results in profound defects in PMN function. For example, alcohol suppresses tissue recruitment of PMNs during infection and inflammation, which can lead to increased susceptibility to bacterial infections (particularly pneumonia), decreased removal of invading bacteria (i.e., bacterial clearance), and increased mortality from pneumonia. (Molina, et. al.)

  1. Molin, et. al. also found that chronic alcohol consumption affects a key immune cell called dendritic cells. Dendritic cells are immune cells that play a crucial role in coordinating and regulating the body’s immune responses. Alcohol reduces their numbers, “interferes with their differentiation, and impairs their functions, such as their ability to stimulate other cells, absorb and ingest particles from outside the cell, and express co-stimulatory receptors.” This makes it harder to fend off hepatitis C infections.
  2. In heavy drinkers, the mucosal barrier in the gastrointestinal tract is disrupted. Research shows that immune cells cannot properly regulate alcohol-induced inflammation that damages the protective barrier in our intestines. This makes it easier for bacteria and toxins to slip into the bloodstream and travel to the liver and brain.
  3. Natural killer (NK) cells, responsible for detecting and eliminating virus-infected and cancerous cells, also fall victim to the harmful effects of alcohol. A 2016 study found that alcohol decreases the number and activity of cytotoxic conventional NK cells, disrupting their development and hindering their ability to detect and eliminate harmful cells, due to a lack of necessary immune signals.

The evidence does not pull punches: alcohol is a real downer for your immune system. Sarkar, et. al. presented the evidence that:

…alcohol disrupts immune pathways in complex and seemingly paradoxical ways. These disruptions can impair the body’s ability to defend against infection, contribute to organ damage associated with alcohol consumption, and impede recovery from tissue injury.

Still, many people believe that an occasional glass or two of wine is no big deal. While there is some evidence to support this, the scales seem to tip unfavorably. Even moderate alcohol consumption can exert detrimental effects on your health in the long run. 

The smartest thing you can do for yourself is to steer clear of the bottle altogether. If you’re struggling to remain sober or fear alcohol has taken hold of you, seek the support of a qualified alcohol detox and rehab facility

You can benefit from our inpatient program, which helps you overcome your withdrawal symptoms and teaches you healthy coping strategies to deal with alcohol cravings. After completing the inpatient portion, you can continue on the road to recovery with our intensive outpatient program.

How does heavy drinking affect the body?

We’ve just seen why booze is bad for the function of your immune cells. Because of those negative effects, people who suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or drink too much too often are more susceptible to diseases and infections. Alcohol addiction delivers a devastating one-two punch by both hindering the body’s defenses and leaving organs vulnerable to disease. 

The combination of impaired defenses and organ dysfunction leaves the body susceptible to numerous health issues. Heavy drinkers seem to be more prone to a wide range of health complications, ranging from respiratory infections to serious liver diseases and beyond.

Liver fibrosis, cirrhosis, and liver failure

Chronic alcohol abuse damages the liver, compromising its ability to function and increasing the risk of cirrhosis and liver failure. Osna, et. al. revealed that “heavy ethanol consumption produces a wide spectrum of hepatic lesions, the most characteristic being fatty liver (i.e., steatosis), hepatitis, and fibrosis/cirrhosis.”

Cardiovascular diseases and complications

Heavy drinking is associated with increased blood pressure, contributing to the development of cardiovascular diseases. Piano found that heavy drinking can have “serious physiological effects [on the heart], including mitochondrial dysfunction and changes in circulation, inflammatory response, oxidative stress, and programmed cell death, as well as anatomical damage to the cardiovascular system, especially the heart itself.” 

Elevated blood pressure due to alcohol abuse is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular complications.

Read more about why alcohol is not so good for the heart.

Respiratory infections and distress syndrome

Alcohol impairs the immune system by suppressing cell-mediated immunity, weakening the body’s ability to defend against infections in the respiratory system. This immunosuppression allows viruses and bacteria to more easily invade the lungs, leading to respiratory infections. 

Research points to the fact that people with alcohol use disorder “are more likely to develop pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Increased susceptibility to these and other pulmonary infections is caused by impaired immune responses in people with AUD.”

Autoimmune diseases

Chronic alcohol consumption disrupts the delicate balance of the immune system, leading to dysregulation and an increased risk of autoimmune diseases. Alcohol-induced inflammation and oxidative stress can trigger the production of self-reactive antibodies and the attack of healthy tissues. 

Alcohol also interferes with the function of regulatory T cells, whose role is to prevent the immune system from mistakenly attacking the body’s own cells. This disruption in immune system regulation, coupled with heightened inflammation, creates an environment conducive to the development or exacerbation of autoimmune diseases as the body’s immune defenses turn against its own tissues.

Issues with the gastrointestinal tract

Remember how alcohol disrupts the protective barrier in the gastrointestinal tract, compromising its ability to regulate the passage of substance? This disruption in barrier function can result in gut-related issues, including inflammation. 

A 2021 study suggests that “patients with IBD report worse gastrointestinal symptoms following alcohol consumption.” Another study confirms that people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), IBD, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis experience “a worsening of GI symptoms with alcohol consumption.”

Increased risk of cancer

We’ve seen how drinking heavily hampers the immune system’s ability to detect and eliminate abnormal cells. During the process, the immune “surveillance” is impaired and your immune system cannot detect and kill cancer cells. Alcohol-induced inflammation creates a pro-cancer environment, not only not dealing with them but also promoting the development of cancerous cells. 

A meta-analysis of 572 studies involving 486,538 cancer cases found that heavy alcohol consumption significantly increases the risk of:

  • Liver carcinoma
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Oral cavity cancer
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Breast cancer

Risk of mental health issues

Chronic alcohol abuse can deplete your mental health. People normally tend to reach for the bottle whenever they feel anxious, sad, or depressed, thinking it will improve the mood, but alcohol does the opposite.

It disrupts the delicate balance of neurotransmitters in the brain that can contribute to the development or exacerbation of mental health issues. Alcohol’s depressant effects on the central nervous system can contribute to feelings of anxiety and exacerbate existing anxiety disorders. The more you drink, the lower your serotonin will be, increasing your risks of depression. Serotonin is the so-called “feel-good” neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and motivation.

Increased serotonin activity at the 5-HT2 receptor caused by chronic alcohol exposure also may contribute to the alcohol withdrawal syndrome—the pattern of behaviors occurring when alcohol is withheld after chronic use. For example, alcoholics frequently experience increased anxiety levels after cessation of drinking. (Lovinger)

The more you drink, the more your mental and cognitive health suffers. Chronic use of alcohol may impair cognitive function, further contributing to mental health challenges. An Australian study suggests that “high levels of alcohol consumption are associated with poor academic performance and mental health outcomes among students.”

With alcohol abstinence, proper nutrition, and therapeutic support, your immune system can strengthen and heal. That’s why it’s important to seek help quickly before the damage becomes permanent.

If you or a loved one are abusing alcohol or struggling with alcoholism, safe, effective, and customized care is available. Contact us today to discuss treatment options that can help you regain health, safety, and sobriety.

Can the immune system recover from alcohol?

Luckily, our body is more resilient than we think. We can recover from alcohol’s harmful effects if given enough time and proper care. For example, when you stop drinking, your brain can repair damaged neurons and rebalance the neurotransmitters.

Your immune system is resilient. Once the alcohol abuse stops, the recovery process can begin. If you’re a moderate drinker, your immune system can bounce back. 

However, chronic alcohol consumption is another story. Years of excessive alcohol intake can overwhelm and permanently damage immune defenses, making full recovery unlikely. Critical lymphocyte populations may never recover, your organ function may become unsalvageably compromised, and your bone marrow reserves permanently exhausted. Extreme alcohol toxicity may simply be more than the immune system can ultimately overcome.

So why risk it? If you’re addicted to alcohol or you fear you may be gulping down more than your immune system can bear, contact us. Ardu Recovery Center will help you break the cycle of dependence and bad habits. 

We provide comprehensive treatment for alcohol addiction, including medically monitored detox, counseling, psychotherapy, group support, and aftercare planning. Our goal is to help you reclaim sobriety and lifelong wellness.

Do you need help quitting alcohol?

The most surefire way to achieve success in recovery is to make and execute a well-thought-out plan, with the support of caring professionals. Going through the stages of alcohol recovery can be stressful, but it’s less difficult with the right support system in place. 

Instead of going at it alone, take your first steps toward a new life and contact the experts at Ardu Recovery Center today. We offer specialized detox and rehab programs to suit whatever your unique needs may be and to make recovery as comfortable and successful as possible. We are located in stunning Provo, Utah, and have a full range of recovery programs and addiction resources.

  • Understanding addiction: we help you get to the heart of your alcoholism and fully grasp the effects of alcohol; this gives you additional motivation to overcome the addiction.
  • Individual therapy: with psychotherapy and other modalities, you learn healthy coping skills so you aren’t tempted to rely on alcohol. A variety of therapeutic approaches, from cognitive behavioral therapy to motivational interviewing to dialectical behavioral therapy, allow you to find the modality that resonates with you.
  • Group therapy: in a caring group setting, you regain healthy social skills and build a network of support.
  • Family therapy: if your family wants to participate in your recovery, we offer family therapy sessions for healing your family unit and rebuilding trust and support.
  • Dual diagnosis treatment: if you have a co-occurring disorder or condition—such as anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder—our dual diagnosis program will help you heal both your alcohol addiction and your other mental health.
  • Holistic approach: not only are we a full medical detox and rehab facility, but our addiction treatment program also features holistic modalities such as yoga, nutritional therapy, and many other methods to help you regain balance and undo the effects of alcohol.

Choose health, ditch, booze, and contact Ardu.

Alcohol FAQ

What happens to your body if you drink alcohol every day?

Daily alcohol consumption can wreak havoc on your body. It impairs the immune system, compromising defense mechanisms against infections. Chronic alcohol intake damages organs, particularly the liver, which plays a vital role in supporting immunity. The function of the epithelial cells, essential for barrier function, is inhibited. Persistent alcohol use elevates the risk of cardiovascular diseases, weakens cell-mediated immunity, and increases the risk of infections. 

You can see how your favorite alcoholic beverages may ruin your health. Quit while you’re ahead and you don’t have to worry about infectious diseases, suppressed immune function, or any other negative impact of alcohol.

What happens to your body after 1 month of no alcohol?

After a month of abstaining from alcohol, your body begins a remarkable recovery. This is what you can expect after only 30 days of sobriety:

  • Liver function improves, reducing the risk of alcoholic liver disease. 
  • The immune system rebounds, with increased activity of immune cells. 
  • Epithelial cells regain their barrier function, aiding in protection against infections. 
  • Mental health often sees positive changes, as alcohol-related stress diminishes. 
  • The cardiovascular system benefits, blood pressure normalizes, and inflammation decreases. 

Say no to alcohol, to moderate consumption or occasional drinking. Your entire body will thank you.

How much does alcohol weaken your immune system?

While many people believe that alcohol weakens the immune system in dose-dependent effects, the fact is that even moderate consumption of alcohol can cause adverse effects. Heavy or chronic alcohol consumption definitely suppresses immune function. But even moderate alcohol intake can compromise immune responses, making people more susceptible to infections. 

The impact on immune cells and functions contributes to an increased risk of diseases and infections. We can’t stress enough the importance of moderation in consuming alcohol to maintain robust immunity. You don’t have to be a chronic alcoholic in order for your health and immunity to suffer.

Which organ is mostly affected by alcohol?

The liver is the most affected by alcohol. The negative effects of ethanol lead to alcoholic cirrhosis, where healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue. This impairs liver function, affecting its role in detoxification and metabolism. A compromised liver due to alcohol-related damage may struggle to mount an effective immune response, elevating the risk of viral infections. 

Chronic heavy drinking isn’t the only way to damage your liver, often irreparably. Even acute alcohol consumption can overwork your liver and disrupt its finely tuned processes, leading to conditions like alcoholic cirrhosis. The detrimental effects of alcohol on the liver, such as increased inflammation and oxidative stress, can swiftly impact organ health. This onslaught compromises the liver’s ability to filter toxins, regulate blood sugar, and produce essential proteins. 

What happens to your immune system when you quit drinking?

When you quit alcohol, you allow your immune system to rebound. As you abstain, natural killer cells regain their optimal function, improving the body’s ability to fight off infections. Epithelial cells recover, enhancing immune defenses. The overall inflammatory burden decreases, reducing the risk of chronic diseases. Quitting alcohol positively impacts mental health, as alcohol-induced stress diminishes. This recovery process highlights the resilience of the immune system when freed from the suppressive effects of alcohol.

How much alcohol is considered a moderate amount?

Moderate alcohol consumption is generally defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. This recommendation takes into account factors such as the risk of infection, blood alcohol concentration, and the dose-dependent manner in which alcohol affects the body. It aligns with guidelines that consider the impact of drinks per day on various aspects of health, including mental health services administration. 

Moderate consumption is associated with fewer risks, and staying within these limits helps maintain a balance between enjoying alcoholic beverages and minimizing potential negative consequences on immune function, antimicrobial defense, and overall well-being.

Does alcohol increase inflammation?

Alcohol is known to increase inflammation in the body. Chronic alcohol consumption triggers an inflammatory response, contributing to various health issues. Elevated inflammation is linked to conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and autoimmune disorders. The impact on inflammatory pathways can exacerbate existing health problems and create a pro-inflammatory environment. Reducing alcohol intake, or abstaining altogether, is crucial to mitigate inflammation and lower the risk of inflammation-related diseases.

Does all alcohol lower your immune system?

All forms of alcohol have the potential to lower the immune system. Whether from beer, wine, or spirits, the key factor is the alcohol content. Chronic alcohol consumption, regardless of the source, weakens immune function. It affects natural killer cells, impairs epithelial cells, and compromises the body’s ability to mount effective immune responses. 

Moderation is key, as even lower alcohol intake can have detrimental effects on the immune system. Choosing to limit alcohol consumption or opting for alcohol-free alternatives supports overall immune health.


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Xu, H., & Wang, H. (2022, March 1). Immune cells in alcohol-related liver disease. Liver Research. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.livres.2022.01.001

Molina, P. E. (2010). Focus On: Alcohol and the Immune System. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3887500/

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Bagnardi, V., Rota, M., Botteri, E., Tramacere, I., Islami, F., Fedirko, V., Scotti, L., Jenab, M., Turati, F., Pasquali, E., Pelucchi, C., Galeone, C., Bellocco, R., Negri, E., Corrao, G., Boffetta, P., & La Vecchia, C. (2014, November 25). Alcohol consumption and site-specific cancer risk: a comprehensive dose–response meta-analysis. British Journal of Cancer. https://doi.org/10.1038/bjc.2014.579

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