The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as drinking sufficient alcohol to reach or exceed a blood alcohol content of .08, the legal limit for driving. This typically occurs after four drinks for women or five drinks for men, consumed in two hours.
A new study, from the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, has detailed that binge drinking affects the immune system. Study participants recruited for the study drank four or five shots of vodka, to meet the definition of binge drinking. Twenty minutes after reaching peak intoxication, their immune systems went into high gear.
Blood samples were taken at 20 minutes intervals, two hours and five hours after peak intoxication and revealed that 20 minutes after peak intoxication, there was increased immune system activity. There were higher levels of three types of white blood cells that are key components of the immune system: leukocytes, monocytes and natural killer cells. There also were increased levels of proteins called cytokines that signal the immune system to ramp up.
Two hours and five hours after peak intoxication, researchers found the opposite effect: fewer circulating monocytes and natural killer cells and higher levels of different types of cytokines that signal the immune system to become less active.
Previous studies have determined that binge drinking impairs the body’s ability to recover from such traumatic body injuries and that binge drinking delays wound healing, increases blood loss and makes patients more prone to pneumonia and infections from catheters. Binge drinkers also are more likely to die from traumatic injuries.
People are generally aware that alcohol alters and can impair behavior. “But there is less awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects in other areas, such as the immune system,” said Elizabeth Kovacs, PhD, a co-author of the study and director of Loyola’s Alcohol Research Program.
Majid Afshar, Stephanie Richards, Dean Mann, Alan Cross, Gordon B. Smith, Giora Netzer, Elizabeth Kovacs, Jeffrey Hasday. Acute Immunomodulatory Effects of Binge Alcohol Ingestion. Alcohol, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.alcohol.2014.10.002