Alcohol reduces your lung’s ability to propel viruses and other toxins out of your body.

Intro

These are the main factors why I researched and wrote this blog:

  1. The majority of people suffering from COVID-19 at the local hospital in my community during a recent outbreak are 20-40 years old, not seniors.
  2. There have been statistics numerous times in the business news highlighting the large increase in alcohol sales since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
  3. The general media isn’t sharing much information about how to strengthen your own immune system or the factors that harm it.
  4. An awareness that alcohol is not good for your physical or mental health over time and curiosity as to how alcohol specifically impacts our immunity.
  5. The many unexplainable differences in the severity of COVID-19 symptoms experienced by people I know directly or indirectly.

This blog is going to be succinct, if I tried to cover all the information related to this topic it would become a book. What I want to share with you are some health-related concepts for consideration in your daily life as they relate to your well-being. These points may be helpful with the decisions you make as you determine your own approach to optimizing your immunity, I hope you find them valuable.

You May Have Heard…

We may not know, or even want to know it, but experts have been aware for decades that prolonged alcohol consumption can weaken the body’s natural defenses. This means heavy drinkers are at higher risk of getting sick and staying sick. This doesn’t just mean people who have been drinking regularly over years, it also means drinking in large amounts on and off. Over ten years ago researchers reported that people who “drink heavily” are 10 times more likely to develop pneumococcal pneumonia and 4 times more likely to die from pneumonia than non-drinkers (1)

How Does Alcohol Affect our Immune System?

  1. Once alcohol is absorbed, your white blood cell counts fall and this reduces your body’s ability to fight infection. White blood cells are our “fighter” cells against viruses, bacteria, chemical agents and other destructive antigens.
  2. Alcohol can reduce the ability of the body to absorb important nutrients necessary for overall health and immunity. This includes B vitamins which are vital for normal brain function and Zinc which helps the immune system do its job and is essential for forming proteins and DNA. (2)
  3. Reduced lung function: alcohol consumption has been linked to pulmonary diseases, including pneumonia, tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus, and acute respiratory disease (ARDS) for many years. (3) “Alcohol disrupts ciliary function in the upper airways, impairs the function of immune cells, and weakens the barrier function of the epithelia in the lower airways. Often, the alcohol-provoked lung damage goes undetected until a second insult, such as a respiratory infection, leads to more severe lung diseases than those seen in non drinkers.” (4) Add to this risk factors such as chronic stress, as we are facing now, or smoking and vaping, and we can see our immune systems – and especially our lungs, are more vulnerable to infection when alcohol is involved.

While mucociliary clearance is our primary line of cellular defense to invaders, “alveolar macrophages (our natural PAC-MAN cells) are key components of both innate and acquired immunity against invading pathogens in the lung. These cells are the next line of cellular defense against invading pathogens through their phagocytic, microbiocidal, and secretory functions.” Chronic alcohol ingestion decreases alveolar macrophage function (5)

  1. Liver function is reduced: The liver performs hundreds of functions to keep your body healthy including removing toxins from the bloodstream.

Anything you eat or consume in other ways gets filtered by your liver, whether it’s food, alcohol, medicine or other substances. Reduced liver function due to alcohol use increases the risk of infection.

  1. Gastrointestinal (GI) system: where alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream and the initial point of contact for alcohol in our bodies. Alcohol affects the structure and integrity of the GI tract; it alters the number of microbes in the gut microbiome which are critical for normal gut function. “These organisms also affect the maturation and function of the immune system cells.” (6)

What is “Heavy Drinking” Defined As?

While tolerance can vary person to person, the definition by CDC is:

“Binge drinking”
women = 4 or more drinks in two to three hours
men = 5 or more drinks in two to three hours

“Heavy drinking”
Women = 8 or more alcoholic drinks/week
Men = 15 or more drinks/week

Bottom Line

“In addition to compromising the immune cell function, chronic drinking and binge drinking can damage barrier functions in the lungs, the gut and the blood-brain barrier,” states Kathy Jung and Joe Wang, from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

So, now we know a bit more about what alcohol is doing at a deeper level in our bodies and more specifically our immune system.

If our goal is to come out of this current pandemic situation with good physical and mental health, what should we focus on?

Below is a short list, please feel free to add to it on my LinkedIn account, Nancy Phillips.

Feel Good List:
*Get outside and experience nature
*Exercise
*Have a conversation with someone you enjoy talking to
*Make a great meal, eat healthy food to get the nutrients your brain and body need
*Hydrate daily, your brain and body are made up of over 70% water
*Hold a baby or a pet
*Do something kind for someone else, shift the mental focus from self
*Put on the music and dance
*Be romantic
*Learn something new – take a course, read a new book
*Meditate, if you don’t know how, guided meditation works well too
*Use a gratitude journal daily
*Do a project, the feeling of progress is a powerful positive force for the brain
*Sleep well, this is our recovery and repair time. Avoid caffeine, exercise and large amounts of alcohol late in the day. Same goes for screen time right before bed and thinking about worries, chunk out some time on your schedule for that during the day when you’re not tired. Gratitude journaling and meditation have been scientifically proven to help people relax enough to sleep.

These strategies really helped me deal with the final months and eventually the deaths of both my parents in the fall of 2020. I hope you find some gold nuggets for your life as well.

Note: For kids, camping is listed as the best activity in many countries around the world.
Take good care, we’ll get through this together.

Nancy Phillips, Kinesiologist, MBA
V.P. Prevention & Wellness Division,
Pharmaris Canada

References:
(1) (Lujan et al. 2010). Lujan, M.; Gallego, M.; Belmonte, Y.; et al. Influence of pneumococcal serotype group on outcome in adults with bacteraemic pneumonia. European Respiratory Journal 36(5):1073–1079, 2010.
(2) Substance use recovery and diet: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
(3) Jellinek 1943; Samokhvalov et al. 2010), tuberculosis (TB) (Borgdorff et al. 1998; Buskin et al. 1994; Kline et al. 1995; Narasimhan et al. 2013), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection (Jerrells et al. 2007), and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) (Moore et al. 2003; Moss et al. 1996).
(4) Alcohol Res. 2015; 37(2): 153–155. PMCID: PMC4590612 Alcohol and the Immune System Dipak Sarkar, Ph.D.
Craig A, Mai J, Cai S, Jeyaseelan S. Neutrophil recruitment to the lungs during bacterial pneumonia. Infection and Immunity. 2009;77(2):568–575.
Guidot DM, Hart CM. Alcohol abuse and acute lung injury: Epidemiology and pathophysiology of a recently recognized association. Journal of Investigative Medicine. 2005;53(5):235–245.
(5) Rubins, J.B. Alveolar macrophages: Wielding the double-edged sword of inflammation. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 167(2):103–104, 2003
(6) Alcohol Res. 2015; 37(2): 153–155. PMCID: PMC4590612 Alcohol and the Immune System Dipak Sarkar, Ph.D.
Cook RT. Alcohol abuse, alcoholism, and damage to the immune system—A review. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 1998;22(9):1927–1942.