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How Alcohol Impairs Your Immune System and Makes You Vulnerable to Coronavirus

Forget masks: Going sober is a great way to stay coronavirus-free

When I gave up booze 92 days ago, I never could have expected that, only three months later, everyone would be ransacking liquor stores, ordering margaritas for delivery and chugging enough hooch to arouse a staunch message of caution from leading health professionals against the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism. Alas, the coronavirus has spoken, and here we are.

The reminder to ease up on drinking comes after liquor stores were deemed essential by many states while imposing widespread shutdowns, and after it was reported that hundreds have been killed and thousands sickened by consuming bootleg alcohol, falsely believing it would cure the coronavirus. Meanwhile, unemployment, loneliness and angst have teamed up to delude drinkers into drowning their sorrows with an extra glass of goodness on a more frequent basis

The negative effects of alcohol, mental, physical and interpersonal, have been exhaustively documented, and a significant increase in your consumption could obviously contribute to all sorts of problems. One you should be especially aware of, as we all do our damnedest to elude the coronavirus, is that booze severely weakens your immune system.

As a 2015 study states, “Clinicians have long observed an association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related health effects such as susceptibility to pneumonia.” Pneumonia, as if you need reminding at this point, is a deadly symptom of the coronavirus. The same study declares, “Alcohol disrupts immune pathways in complex and seemingly paradoxical ways.”

First, as booze passes through your body, it alters the number of microbes and creates inflammation in your gut, which acts as a hub for your immune system. “One major way that alcohol negatively affects your immune system is because it makes it harder to absorb nutrients, and it disrupts your gut microbiome, which skews the ratio of healthy and unhealthy bacteria,” explains immunologist Kathleen Dass.

A hindered gut, of course, exposes your body to harmful intruders. As a 2017 study explains, “The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, as the first line of contact with anything ingested into the body, is at particular risk for damage by toxins. And mounting research suggests that poor gastrointestinal health plays a significant role in the body’s overall health.” Worse yet, as the same 2015 study states, “Alcohol consumption also damages epithelial cells, T cells and neutrophils in the GI system, disrupting gut barrier function and facilitating leakage of microbes into the circulation.” 

Normally, these cells act as barriers and defenders against harmful infiltrators, so them being out of commission is bad news for your overall immune response.

Alcohol has a similar effect on our lungs, which is especially unfortunate considering the coronavirus is a respiratory disease. Per the same 2015 study, “Alcohol disrupts ciliary function in the upper airways, impairs the function of immune cells (i.e., alveolar macrophages and neutrophils) and weakens the barrier function of the epithelia in the lower airways.” 

Again, these normally act as protective barriers, so them being burdened by booze increases your risk of falling ill.

On a more widespread level, the seven Quarantinis you just drank can cause monocytes, immune cells that float through your bloodstream bashing viruses and bacteria, to become virtually plastered. One experiment involving what would amount to you consuming about four or five alcoholic drinks daily for a week showed that they produced significantly fewer virus-fighting molecules and overproduced harmful inflammatory chemicals. Of course, alcohol also screws with your sleep, which can ravage your immune system, too.

Now, after reading that four or five drinks a day for a whole week caused some serious problems, you might be thinking that a few beers here and there is probably fine, which, maybe. As a 2007 study claims, “Light to moderate amounts of polyphenol-rich alcoholic beverages like wine or beer could have health benefits.” However, more recently, reports have shown that Big Booze is actually funding this science in order to make drinking seem more favorable, and that any amount of alcohol can have a negative impact. Plus, as a 2016 study explains, “The mechanisms by which alcohol exerts a dose-dependent effect on the immune system remain poorly understood due to a lack of systematic studies that examine the effect of multiple doses and different time courses.” 

Put plainly, the effects that alcohol has on each person is largely personalized, so arguing that one drink is fine for everyone would be misguided.

On the flip side, much research has shown that even one spell of binge-drinking four or five alcoholic beverages can seriously expose you to sickness. “Binge-drinking can temporarily weaken your immunity and increase your likelihood of being exposed to viruses and bacteria,” Dass confirms. As the same 2015 study concludes, “Alcohol consumption does not have to be chronic to have negative health consequences. In fact, research shows that acute binge drinking also affects the immune system.”

And considering “acute binge drinking” would describe most of my quarantine activities had I not recently given up alcohol, I guess I made the right choice.

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