Binge drinking could be making you sick — but not necessarily in the way you think, say researchers from Loyola University Chicago, who found that binge drinking “significantly disrupts the immune system” of healthy young adults.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1 in 6 adults in the US binge drink four times a month, with the most common binge-drinking group being young adults between the ages of 18-34.
Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as drinking enough to reach or exceed a blood alcohol content of .08, which is also the legal limit for driving. This level is usually achieved after four drinks for women or five drinks for men, consumed over 2 hours.
The dangers of binge drinking are well documented. Previous research has shown that one third of trauma patients have alcohol in their systems and that binge drinking increases the risk of falls, burns, gunshot wounds, car accidents and other traumatic injuries.
Dr. Elizabeth Kovacs, PhD, a co-author of the study and director of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine’s Alcohol Research Program, says that while drinkers understand how binge drinking alters behavior, there is less awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects in other areas, such as the immune system.
For the study — the results of which are published in the journal Alcohol — the authors recruited eight men and eight women with a median age of 27. Each participant drank four or five shots of vodka — enough to meet the definition of binge drinking.
Intoxication led to reduced activity in immune systems
Taking blood samples from the participants 20 minutes after reaching peak intoxication, the researchers observed that the immune systems of the participants “revved up.”
When they measured the participants’ immune responses again at 2 and 5 hours after peak intoxication, however, the researchers found that the participants’ immune systems had become less active than when they were sober.
In these blood samples, there were higher levels of three types of white blood cells — leukocytes, monocytes and natural killer cells — that are considered to be key components of the immune system, as well as increased levels of cytokines, the proteins that signal the immune system to reduce activity.
The intervals at which the blood samples were taken are relevant because these are the times following intoxication when patients typically arrive at trauma centers seeking treatment for alcohol-related injuries. This is particularly significant, as past studies have shown that people who sustain alcohol-involved injuries tend to experience slower healing of fractures plus poor responses to blood transfusions and resuscitations. Binge drinkers are also more likely to die from traumatic injuries, studies have found, a possible consequence of impaired immune functioning.
“When a lot of people think of harmful patterns of drinking, they think of people who are alcoholics or daily heavy drinkers,” said lead author Dr. Majid Afshar, a pulmonologist, critical care physician and epidemiologist at Loyola.
“But the study makes the point that one episode of this type of drinking can certainly be disruptive in your immune system and potentially lead to problems,” Dr. Afshar said.
In addition to increased risk of alcohol-related injuries and slower healing time, the authors note that the effects of binge drinking on the immune system also puts young adults at higher risk of infection and serious illnesses like pneumonia. In fact, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization, excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of at least 200 different diseases. And these effects aren’t limited to alcoholics or daily drinkers — even occasional binge drinking is enough to cause harm.
Next, the researchers will conduct a similar study among burn unit patients, comparing those who had alcohol in their system upon arrival with those who had not consumed alcohol. Again, immune system markers will be measured from each group, but their outcomes — such as lung injury, organ failure and death — will also be compared.