Alcohol and Your Immune System

The medical establishment recommends minimizing alcohol use if you’re concerned about your immunity. It is one of the eight fundamentals of a healthy immune system, which we have been exploring in this series. The relationship of alcohol and your immune system, however, is the most complicated of all the eight fundamentals. It is true that alcohol in substantial amounts can weaken the immune system. But there is evidence that in small amounts, it can actually strengthen it.

Alcohol and Respiratory Infections

For centuries, alcohol has been regarded as a “cure” for colds. When you have the sniffles, you are supposed to drink a hot toddy and go to bed. There are many recipes for hot toddy, but most are based on hot water, lemon, honey, and whiskey. This drink can indeed make your cold feel better. But it works on the symptoms rather than the cold virus.

Yes, alcohol can destroy a virus on your hands or on a hard surface. But any virus that has entered your body has already bonded with some of your cells and is impervious to alcohol that you drink (or inject, for that matter). Drinking alcohol might relax you. It might dilate your blood vessels. It might even dehydrate you and thereby dry up your runny nose. Drinking a hot toddy can make you feel better, but that doesn’t mean it “cures” your cold. It doesn’t.

Alcohol and Your Immune System

As I noted above, the medical establishment advises against heavy drinking if you want a healthy immune system. This is partly because of what so many medical professionals have seen in hospitals: a strong connection between alcohol and pneumonia. Pneumonia is ordinarily an infection of the lung tissue that fills the air sacs with liquid. But there is another kind of pneumonia that results, not from infection but from a disturbance of the gag reflex. It’s called aspiration pneumonia, and it happens when you inhale liquid into your lungs, such as drink, vomit, or saliva. In hospitals, they see it often among alcohol abusers.

And yet, a hot toddy can make your cold feel better. There must be something there, right? If you don’t already drink, I would not advise you to take it up. But there is evidence that small amounts of alcohol can help to strengthen your immune system, and I would be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that. Much of the evidence was reviewed in a 2002 article in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “The evaluation of the host cellular and humoral immune responses has shown that alcohol may induce some benefits when consumption is moderate. Moreover, those alcoholic beverages that contain antioxidants, such as red wine, could be protectors against immune cell damage.”

How Much Can You Safely Drink?

What do I mean by “small amounts” of alcohol? For women, it is 10-12 grams daily. One regular beer or one glass of wine is usually equal to about 14 grams of alcohol. So, if you’re a woman, even a single drink exceeds the daily limit. If you’re a man, the limit is 20-24 grams, so you might risk up to a drink and a half a day.

But here’s the thing. A 2011 study out of Denmark showed that the risk of pneumonia increases substantially when you drink infrequently in higher doses than if you even out the same consumption over the course of the week. The same study, incidentally, also found that male drinkers were more susceptible to pneumonia than female. So women should find the guidelines difficult to follow without endangering their health by concentrating their doses of alcohol. Men should find them difficult to follow, well, because they are men and more susceptible to pneumonia to begin with.

If you want to drink, then, you need to ask yourself something. Is the effort of observing the limitations needed to keep alcohol from endangering your health worth the modest benefits the alcohol might confer on your immune system?