Alcoholism is a condition in which individuals drink alcohol in excess despite the fact that their habit causes physical and mental health problems, and social, family, and/or job-related issues. Heavy alcohol consumption results in damage to many parts of the body including the brain, liver, digestive system, and joints. Alcoholics also suffer with dementia, memory loss, depression, emotional instability, and are at increased risk of cancer of the colon, liver, and esophagus.
Immune System Effects
Prolonged, heavy alcohol consumption negatively affects immune cells and their production of cytokines, immune messages. Alcoholics have significantly higher rates of bacterial and viral infections and when hospitalized remain hospitalized longer than those that do not abuse alcohol. Alcohol not only kills key immune cells, but excess amounts of alcohol results in an increased risk of autoimmune responses in which the body’s immune cells mistakenly attack the body’s own healthy cells as foreign.
The body constantly strives to maintain immune inflammatory homeostasis; to balance the amount of inflammation it produces to protect the body from infection. Imbalances of inflammatory responses, loss of immune homeostasis, result from excessive alcohol consumption. For example, white cells, immune cells, search out and destroy and remove pathogens from the lungs. After alcohol consumption, fewer immune cells respond to the call for “help”. Those cells that do enter the lungs are unable to kill microbes as effectively as cells from non-alcoholic animals.
The inefficient immune responses of alcoholics lead them to be more vulnerable to viral infections such as hepatitis C, influenza, and HIV and bacterial infections including tuberculosis and pneumonia. Especially after experiencing trauma, e.g., surgery, alcoholics are more likely than non-alcoholics to get pneumonia.
A mouse study is one of many that demonstrates the decreased ability of alcohol-imbibing animals to fend off infection. Sixty percent of mice that were exposed to the flu after imbibing alcohol for two months died of the flu as compared to a 15% mortality rate of mice that had not been drinking alcohol prior to exposure.
Cortisol, the “stress-response hormone” affects nervous, immune, circulatory, and metabolic systems of the body. After surgery, chronic alcoholics have higher cortisol levels compared to non-alcoholic patients. The increased inflammation that accompanies stress also leads to higher levels of depression, other addictions, and mood disorders.
Other hormones effected by alcohol consumption are those a)that may interfere with the a women’s menstrual cycle, b) the ability for men and women to enjoy sex, or c) control blood sugar.
Nervous System Complications:
Alcohol is neuro-toxic to brain cells interfering with the development, repair, and communication of nerve cells. Consumption of large amounts of alcohol leads to shrinkage of white matter in the brain, adding to depression, confusion, short-term memory loss, “fuzzy” thinking, and a greater risk of getting dementia. Alcohol also directly affects the nervous system in other ways, causing numbness, tingling, and pain in hands and feet.
Additionally, too great a consumption of alcohol, especially over a long period of time, results in problems with absorption of nutrients, the lack of which can become so severe that certain forms of dementia are triggered.
Alcohol damages osteoblasts, the cells needed to grow and maintain bone. Destruction of osteoblasts results in decreased bone mass and susceptibility to fractures and other orthopedic problems. When a bone fracture occurs, immune cells rush in to start the healing process. They release immune signals, cytokines that start the inflammatory process that recruits more cells into the area. However, when there is too much inflammation, healing, and bone growth is delayed with the result that bones become brittle, thin, or misshapen.
Vitamin B12, vitamin D, phosphate, and magnesium are needed to grow bone. Excessive intake of alcohol is associated with low or subnormal levels of these elements, further inhibiting the growth of and repair of bones.
Skin and Injuries
The cells in the skin help defend the body from pathogens, and keep the skin healthy, youthful, and supple. The immune cells in the skin interact with the microbes that live on the surface. Although the numbers of bacteria on healthy skin stays constant, the types of bacteria that exist change depending on environmental and immune interactions
Heavy use of alcohol significantly slows the movement of immune cells, upsetting the balance, the homeostasis of the skin. Alcoholics experience a greater number of severe skin infections than individuals that drink responsibly.
Almost half of all patients coming into an emergency room with an injury, trauma cases, have high levels of alcohol in their blood. Drunken patients have more severe symptoms, and take longer to recover. They also have higher rates of death as compared to non-intoxicated patients.
Because these patients have imbalances of inflammatory response, it takes them longer to heal, and wounds may become more severe, more quickly. Alcohol damage to the skin continues even after they stop drinking. Alcoholics experience longer hospital stays, especially if they are patients in an intensive care unit.
In a study of two groups of animals with burns, 50% of the animals that had not consumed alcohol survived, compared to 20% of the alcohol-consuming animals.
Although not discussed in this post, moderate intake of alcohol has a beneficial effect on inflammatory markers. However, heavy drinking results in uncontrolled amounts of inflammation leading to a myriad of health consequences. Controlling the amount of inflammation the body produces will make a major difference in the quality of life of an individual.
Some steps abusers of alcohol can take to help their body modulate inflammation are:
- Limit the number of drinks consumed*
- Exercise 30 minutes/day for 5 days a week (150 minute minimum/week)
- Have smaller food portion sizes.
- Consume more fruits and vegetables.
*It is recommended that women limit their alcohol intake to one drink** per day, and men to two drinks/day. [Women absorb and metabolize alcohol differently from men and are more susceptible to alcohol-related organ damage and trauma than men.]
**One drink is defined as 1.5 fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, 12 ounces of beer, or 5 ounces of wine (a pinot noir wine glass about 1/4 full).
Dr. Greenblatt looks forward to assisting you in reaching your goals: http://drhellengreenblatt.info/contact-dr-hellen or 1.302-265.3870 [USA, ET].