Why alcoholism can impair your immune system
Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a condition of excessive drinking of alcohol that leads to mental or physical health problems. Medically speaking, alcoholism exists when one displays one of the following characteristics:
- One consumes large amounts of alcohol over a long period
- You find it difficult to reduce or stop your alcohol intake
- Drinking alcohol affects the fulfilment of your daily responsibilities
- You have an uncontrollable desire to drink alcohol
- Your alcohol consumption results in health and social dangers
Excessive consumption of alcohol damages the liver, heart, pancreas, brain, and immune system and can lead to health challenges such as mental illness, irregular heartbeat, delirium, and increased cancer.
How does alcoholism impair one's immune system? To answer this, let's first discuss the immune system. The Better Health Channel, an Australian-based website, defines the immune system as a complex network of cells and proteins that protect the body against external infections. The primary roles of the immune system are to fight disease-causing germs such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi and eliminate them from the body, recognize and neutralize harmful substances from the environment and combat disease-causing changes in the body.
The immune system comprises white blood cells, antibodies, a complement system, a lymphatic system, a spleen, bone marrow and thymus. All these parts collectively fight infection. The Immune system is vital for survival; without a robust immune system, our bodies would be exposed to attack from outside invaders and to get ill will be the order of the day.
We have two main parts of the immune system - the innate and adaptive immune systems. The innate immune system is inherited; it starts working when a child is born. When it recognizes a foreign body, innate immune system cells surround and overwhelm the invader and kill it. On the other hand, the adaptive or acquired immune system is the one you develop when your body is exposed to microorganisms or chemicals released by the microorganism. When your body gets in contact with the invader, the acquired system, with the help of the innate system, produces cells to protect the body against it.
Let us go back to how alcoholism impairs one's immune system. Alcohol consumption is a common practice in various societies. Debates have been going on about how dangerous alcohol is to health. Various research works have proved that alcohol can be harmful to your health. Alcohol can damage your liver, cardiovascular, and digestive systems or increase your chances of contracting cancer. In general, excessive drinking disrupts your immune system, thus lowering its ability to cope with infectious diseases.
"Alcohol has diverse adverse effects throughout the body, including on all cells of the immune system, that lead to increased risk of serious infections," said Dr E. Jennifer Edelman, a Yale Medicine addiction specialist.
During the coronavirus pandemic, when people are prohibited from moving and interacting with their friends and loved ones, research shows that several people have resorted to alcohol to overcome boredom and stress. Furthermore, alcohol consumption had also been on the rise during the peak of the COVID-19 period due to a myth that consumption of alcohol kills the virus causing Covid-19, a misconception that health experts have dismissed. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has instructed governments to restrict the selling of alcohol, warning that drinking alcohol makes people more prone to the novel virus.
"Alcohol consumption is associated with a range of communicable and noncommunicable diseases and mental health disorders, which can make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19. In particular, alcohol compromises the body's immune system and increases the risk of adverse health outcomes," according to the WHO.
Researchers have discovered that alcohol can weaken your immune system and expose you to more risk of pneumonia, acute respiratory stress syndrome (ARDS), alcoholic liver disease (ALD) and tuberculosis. Other risks are sepsis, high blood pressure, heart disease and Covid-19. It is worth noting that alcohol damages the body and makes it weak to fight certain infections. Drinkers should be concerned that alcohol negatively impacts the functionality of the body and immune system. Let us look at how the adverse effects occur.
Gastrointestinal and alcohol
The Health Engine defines the gastrointestinal system as "a hollow muscular tube starting from the oral cavity, where food enters the mouth, continuing through the pharynx, oesophagus, stomach and intestines to the rectum and anus, where food is expelled." It is also known as the gastrointestinal tract and is subdivided into the oesophagus, stomach, and intestines. The gastrointestinal system is the first point of contact for alcohol. The main functions of the gastrointestinal tract are to digest and absorb ingested nutrients and emit waste products. The parcel contains thousands of microorganisms that aid transpiration, digestion and absorption of food nutrients. Siping alcohol interferes with the microbial organism's balance; the cells that create a barrier between your gut and the rest of the body get destroyed.
The oral cavity and oesophagus are the first parts of the body exposed to alcohol; thus, the effects are more direct and severe. Chronic alcohol drinking can cause mucosal injuries, weaken the functioning of the oesophagus, leading to increased acid reflux and heartburn, destroy salivary glands, and lower saliva production, amongst many others. Similarly, alcohol reduces gastric acid production, leading to high chances of bacteria getting into the small intestine.
Respiratory illness and alcohol
Many people are unaware that alcohol can also destroy the lung. Too much alcohol impairs the function of immune cells, making you susceptible to pneumonia, tuberculosis (TB), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Research conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) shows that millions worldwide have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Dementia, nerve damage, heart muscle damage, pancreatitis, and liver cirrhosis are common health problems associated with AUD.
The only option that should be ringing in your mind if you are a drinker is to quit alcohol to salvage your life. However, how one wants to stop drinking differs from another person's. Some may need guidance from friends and health experts, whereas others gain better results by going to residential rehab or seeking long-term care support. Coming out of alcoholism is not an easy task. To quit, one must first acknowledge they are an alcoholic and be ready to go out of the vicious circle. Equally, they must understand the health problems they have been exposed to due to alcoholism and accept that they need help. Understanding and accepting these realities are necessary if one wants to quit drinking. Quitting alcoholism is an important and healthy choice, which may prolong one's life.