Effects of Alcohol on Autoimmune Conditions

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?

 

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Comments

  1. Can alcohol induce auto-immune disorders?
    I have this very weird health issue that is triggered by alcohol consumption. I occasionally drink with my friends and whenever I do, from the next day onwards, all of my fingertips and even toes become very sore and painful. My nails start getting thicker, pits start forming on top of my nails, they become yellowish and this leads to the disorder known as hyper-keratosis.

    This causes thick keratin growth to bulge out from beneath my fingernails and toenails. Adding to this misery, the skin from the palm of my hand and from underneath the palm of my legs flake out like layers of paper tissues (it worsens when my feet or hands get wet).

    Upon consulting a skin specialist(I did not tell her that I was a drinker), she told me that it was some sort of an abnormal keratin growth, more like an auto immune disorder and prescribed me with coal tar solution and petroleum jelly. It sure did make my condition better, but every time this happens, it takes exactly 3 months to completely heal. I haven’t been drinking for more than a year now and am totally fine. I am quite sure this happens only when I consume alcohol. I even tested it once and the same **** happened again.

    Can anybody please explain all this to me?

    I have such a rotten luck! I can’t even get drunk! Is there any way I could?

  2. Katie Cleary says:

    Hi Ashihs, thanks so much for your comment – I am going to ask around from other autoimmune folks I know to see if I can get an answer for you – one thought though, you might go to a rheumatologist and explain the same chain of events to that type of doctor. It could be that you have Raynaud’s, which would be different from what the dermatologist diagnosed. Some of the symptoms you described above are in keeping with that condition. If I get any other advice, I will let you know — this isn’t medical advice as I am not a doctor, but just ideas from one autoimmune patient to another. Until then, take care and good luck.

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