It’s widely acknowledged that alcohol consumption causes damage to your pancreas, liver and other organs, but it also has a variety of effects on your natural defenses. For example, alcohol reduces cough and mucociliary clearance from your lungs, which increases the risk of pneumonia, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions. Alcohol also suppresses inflammatory mediators that help fight infection, making such infections more likely. Immune system response is affected in a variety of ways by alcohol consumption – including contributions to immunodeficiency and possibly autoimmunity – sometimes resulting in altered immune function and chronic inflammation, both of which are hallmarks of autoimmune disease.
Is there research that shows any short- or long-term autoimmune effects (positive or negative) from drinking alcohol?
Alcohol consumption directly affects your immune system. Specialized immune cells, called natural killer cells, have reduced effectiveness when alcohol is in the bloodstream, and T-cells also become dysfunctional. Fewer B-cells are produced, although their antibody production may be increased, and circulating antibodies in heavy drinkers have been putatively linked to autoimmune conditions.
It has been found that ethanol metabolism creates “neo-antigens,” which attach to normal body proteins and trigger immune cells to attack, leading some to believe that alcoholic liver and pancreatic disease may be partially autoimmune phenomena. There are many anecdotal reports of increased rates of autoimmune flare-ups with alcohol consumption, especially in regards to lupus and arthritis, although no serious human research is being conducted.
In addition, some studies have suggested a positive effect and an accompanying reduction in symptoms from autoimmune disease, secondary to moderate consumption, though more research is needed before clinical recommendations can be made.
Research on animals suggests that some forms of alcohol may trigger increased production of some types of immune cells, known as regulatory T-cells that help to guard the body against an overactive immune system, including that seen in autoimmune disease. This finding has potential implications for the treatment of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and type-1 diabetes, though much more research on people is necessary before any recommendations are made. Therefore, introducing more alcoholic beverages into your diet is not recommended at this time as an effective method of boosting regulatory cell activity and combating autoimmune disease.
If I had a flare related to alcohol consumption, how soon would the flare occur after having a few drinks?
Reactions to alcohol are extremely varied and related to the amount and type consumed, as well as gender, size, weight and ethnicity. Some people with rheumatoid and other types of arthritis, for example, report feeling more pain and stiffness in their joints within an hour of drinking a glass of wine or having a cocktail. But these reports are quite variable and largely anecdotal.
Can the type of alcohol or number of drinks consumed affect a flare?
It depends on the condition in question, but if it’s the ethanol content that’s causing the flare-up, then certainly the flare would be negatively impacted by the number of drinks within a certain period of time, since this impact is based on blood alcohol content. However, some disorders do respond better or worse depending on the type of alcohol as well, with dark beers or liquors sometimes leading to more severe exacerbations than might occur with other beverages. At the same time, sufferers of other diseases may be able to drink only wine or beer, with other formulations being problematic. But again, this varies widely among autoimmune diseases, and you should always check with your doctor regarding alcohol’s effect on your condition, whether positive, negative or a combination of the two.
Questions for your doctor
- Is it best to completely eliminate alcohol from my diet if I have an autoimmune disease?
- Is red wine, in moderation, the best choice in order to minimize autoimmune flare-ups?
- How might liver and pancreatic damage relate to my autoimmune condition?