Beware the Binge: Drinking May Slow Immune System

Binge drinking may lower immune system efficiency in fighting infection

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) You may want to take it slow at that New Year's Eve party. Turning that New Year's drink or two into too many in a short time may lead to injuries and sabotage the body's ability to heal.

A recent study found that binge drinking in young, healthy adults had serious effects on their immune systems. While immune system activity increased shortly after intoxication peaked, the body's ability to recover from injury and fight infection decreased dramatically within hours of drinking.

In addition to increasing the risk of traumatic injuries from falls, burns and car accidents, binge drinking may lower patients' chances of survival and recovery.

"Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading preventable cause of death in the US," said Josephine Dlugopolski-Gach, MD, who is board-certified in adult internal medicine and pediatrics at Loyola University Health System.

Dr. Glugopolski-Gach, who was not involved in this study, told dailyRx News that binge drinking can raise blood pressure, and in those with already high blood pressure, could have serious consequences such as heart attack and stroke.

"Many people are not aware of the dangerous consequences of binge drinking and using acetaminophen/Tylenol together," she explained. "This can have profound consequences of the liver."

Elizabeth Kovacs, PhD, a co-author of this study, noted in a press release that, while people understand how alcohol affects behavior, "there is less awareness of alcohol's harmful effects in other areas, such as the immune system."

Past research found that injured patients with high levels of alcohol in their blood — who make up about 30 percent of all trauma patients in the US — were more prone to blood loss, pneumonia and infections.

This new study revealed another potentially harmful effect of binge drinking: it may disrupt immune responses to infections within the time frame when trauma patients are most exposed to pathogens.

This study, led by Majid Afshar, MD, MSCR, of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, looked at immune responsiveness in 15 young people who had four to five shots of vodka over 20 minutes.

All these patients met the 2004 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism definition for binge drinking, reaching or exceeding a blood alcohol content of 0.08, which is the legal limit for driving. This limit is often met after four drinks in two hours for women and five drinks in the same time frame for men.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 US adults binge drinks about four times a month. Binge drinking is most common among adults aged 18 to 34, the CDC reports.

Dr. Afshar and team enlisted eight women and seven men with a median age of 27.

The patients did not smoke, drink or have caffeine for 72 hours before the study and had no history of alcohol abuse.

All patients reached peak blood alcohol levels between 20 minutes and two hours after drinking, Dr. Afshar and team found.

Blood samples were taken 20 minutes, two hours and five hours after the binge drinking.

The young adults' immune systems became more active 20 minutes after binge drinking. The samples showed increased numbers of leukocytes, monocytes and natural killer cells, which are blood cells that play a crucial role in destroying pathogens and fighting infections.

However, two and five hours after consuming the drinks, leukocytes returned to pre-drinking levels, while natural killer cells and monocytes fell below the sober baseline. Dr. Afshar and colleagues also found increased levels of proteins called cytokines that tell the immune system to slow down.

"Elevated blood alcohol is a frequent occurrence in trauma patients, and understanding the acute effects of alcohol on host response to infection and other inflammatory stimuli has clinical relevance to the care of such patients," Dr. Afshar and team wrote.

This study was published online Dec. 4 in Alcohol.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the University of Maryland funded this research. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
December 30, 2014
Last Updated:
March 10, 2015