How Booze Can Make You Sick—and Not Just While You're Drunk

By Douglas Main | October 5, 2011 12:10 pm

Booze inhibits more than just your judgement: it impairs your immune system’s ability to fight off pathogens, according to a study published last week in the journal BMC Immunology. Researchers exposed human monocytes, a type of white blood cell vital for a functioning immune system, to an amount of alcohol equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1 (around the legal level in most states). Compared to booze-free cells, monocytes exposed to both short- and long-term levels of alcohol produced significantly less type 1 interferons, chemicals the help recruit immune cells to stage an antiviral response (and also have anti-tumor activity). Excessive drinking has long been thought to interfere with the body’s ability to fight disease, and boozing is an important risk factor for hepatitis C and barrier to treatment in HIV. But not much had been known about the mechanisms behind the effect.

But the findings of the study weren’t all so cut and dry. For instance, cells bathed in alcohol for only a few hours showed a notable decrease in the production of tumor necrosis factor-alpha, an chemical that’s helpful in fighting pathogens but is also associated with inflammatory-related chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel syndrome. Monocytes exposed to near constant levels of alcohol for a week, however, showed the opposite: a significant increase in TNF-a. More research will be required to pin down the health-related effects of these chemical fluctuations.

Reference: Maoyin Pang, Shashi Bala, Karen Kodys, Donna Catalano and Gyongyi Szabo. Inhibition of TLR8- and TLR4-induced Type I IFN induction by alcohol is different from its effects on inflammatory cytokine production in monocytes. BMC Immunology, 2011. DOI: 10.1186/1471-2172-12-55

Image: Kirti Poddar / Flickr 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Cathy

    So much for “drinking alcohol helps kill the germs!” As for the inflammation, I wonder how this relates to the folk remedy of gin-soaked raisins for arthritis. My father swore by them. Something about the combination of juniper oil and the chemicals in the raisins was supposed to reduce the pain and swelling, especially in the fingers.

  • israel ebhohimen

    the observed increase in TNF-a is worth studying. Perhaps, some constituents of alcohol may have induced the production. This particular reason should be identified and isolated then test alone. It may just be another discovery in boosting production of TNF-a

  • Liris S.

    Transcribing medical reports for many years, I have the wholly subjective impression of an inverse relationship between cancer and alcoholism. That is, while alcoholics may do tremendous damage to mind and body, it seems rare that they also incur a diagnosis of cancer as well as autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, RA and IBS [mentioned in your report], or even heart disease. As I say, this is a merely subjective impression, but if it holds statistically, TNF-a maybe the smoking gun.

  • http://discoverMagazine katcha Shiver

    Having RA, this is an exciting thought until I realized, my first husband was such a heavy drinker he was hospitalized with walking pnuemonia often because of being too inebreated to know he was in pain. His RA was of a psoariatic type where he had scales all over and died from the painkillers in 2002.


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