A new study has found that binge drinking in young, healthy adults significantly disrupts the immune system.
For the study, researcher Majid Afshar, M.D., M.S.C.R., now at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, had volunteers drink four or five shots of vodka, then took blood samples to measure their immune systems.
The researchers found that 20 minutes after reaching peak intoxication, their immune systems revved up. But when measured again two hours and than again five hours later, their immune systems had become less active than when sober, the researchers reported.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as drinking enough 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 in a two-hour period.
One in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, and binge drinking is more common in young adults aged 18 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Binge drinking increases the risk of falls, burns, gunshot wounds, car accidents, and other traumatic injuries, researchers said, noting that one-third of trauma patients have alcohol in their systems.
On top of that, it impairs the body’s ability to recover from these injuries. Previous studies have found that it 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.
Afshar led the study while at the University of Maryland, where he completed a fellowship before joining Loyola. The study included eight women and seven men with a median age of 27. Each drank enough shots of vodka — generally four or five — to meet the definition of binge drinking.
The researchers took blood samples at 20 minutes and then again at two hours and again at five hours after peak intoxication because these are times when intoxicated patients typically arrive at trauma centers for treatment of alcohol-related injuries, they explain.
The blood samples showed that 20 minutes after peak intoxication, there was increased immune system activity. The researchers found 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.
But at the two hour and five hour blood draws, 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.
Afshar noted he is planning a follow-up study of burn unit patients. He will compare patients who had alcohol in their systems when they arrived at the hospital with patients who were alcohol-free. He will measure immune system markers from each group, and compare their outcomes, including lung injury, organ failure, and death.
The study, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and University of Maryland, was published in Alcohol, an international, peer-reviewed journal.
Source: Loyola University Health System