Drinking Away Your Defenses

Just in time for New Year’s Eve, Max Ufberg reviews a study that links binge-drinking to a weakened immune system:

A new study in the journal Alcohol, led by Loyola University Chicago’s Dr. Majid Afshar, asked 15 testers—with a median age of 27—to drink, depending on their weight, between four to five vodka shots. (Consuming that much alcohol in such a short period of time certainly constitutes binge drinking.) Afshar and his researchers took blood samples 20 minutes after the subjects reached “peak intoxication,” and again two and five hours later. Afshar found that the subjects’ immune systems first revved up—working hard to fight off any sickness—after 20 minutes, but then slowed down significantly by the two- and five-hour measuring points.

To get more specific, Afshar saw higher levels of immune system essentials like proteins and white blood cells—specifically leukocytes, monocytes, and natural killer cells—after the 20-minute mark. But after two hours, and again at five hours, Afshar noted the opposite: Fewer monocytes and natural killer cells circulated around the immune system. This whole process is known as a biphasic immunologic response, but in practical terms, the immune system is significantly weaker a few hours after someone’s drunkenness has hit full force.