COVID-19: Alcohol and your immune system: What you might not know

During this time of heightened stress and anxiety, some might consume alcohol as a way of coping. Dr. E.J. Essic and Dr. Laura Veach chat with BestHealth about healthy coping techniques as well as offering some insightful information on the ways that alcohol impacts our immune system.


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Episode Highlights 

Can stress impact your immune system?

Research has indicated that normally 75% of Americans feel they are under moderate to high stress most of the time, and that’s just day to day life prior to COVID. Stress is one of the things that plays a major role in your immune system. It can impact your blood pressure, cholesterol level, brain chemistry, blood sugar levels, and hormonal balance. It is also increasingly viewed as a cardiovascular risk factor. Studies have shown that short term stress can actually boost the immune system, but chronic stress, which we are all facing now, has a significant effect on the immune system, which can manifest an illness. There is currently no vaccine so we are counting on our immune system to do most of the work for us.

How does drinking alcohol affect stress and your immune system?

When we ask people why they drink, it’s really a quick fix strategy that people use to take a load off, reduce feeling of sadness, combat daily stressors, socialize with others. What we often forget about is that alcohol is a depressant. At this time more than any, we need to figure out ways to lift our feelings up, not put them down. Maybe more importantly, alcohol has a really strong negative effect on our ability to fight disease, which is our immune system. When you combine stress and alcohol, it turns into more of a health risk than most people realize. It’s not just alcohol. Alcohol and any type of smoking (vape, tobacco, marijuana) also puts your lungs further at risk.

What is “risky drinking”?

“Risky drinkers” make up 30% of alcohol drinkers in the United States. These are individuals drinking at heavy levels when they drink. Risky drinking is generally thought of as an episode of drinking where the individual, if male, has 5 or more drinks or if female, has 4 or more drinks during that one occasion (also may be described as binge drinking). Risky drinkers are risking damage to health or damage to various organs, such as the liver, heart, brain, or lungs for example.

Why is risky drinking something to care about during this COVID-19 pandemic?

Many people in the US do not know so much about the health effects of alcohol that we’ve studied & learned about over the years. Again, we are not just talking about individuals with a severe alcohol use disorder – we see negative health effects in individuals who are risky drinkers. When people are stressed due to this crisis because of job, financial, relationship, or health reasons, they may look for a drink as a way of coping with our current stressors. And if drinking might increase the health risks, we want listeners to have more information as they make choices impacting their health, particularly our immune systems. 

What are some stress reduction strategies?

The choices you make right now will increase or decrease your immune system’s vulnerability to fight this virus. You may decide you are not going to drink anymore or drink less, and there are other ways to also help lower your stress, keep your immune system functioning, and stay connected to others. Make a plan/routine that addresses the 5 Major Areas of Wellbeing and Health and continue to act on your plan:

- Physical: Keep up with exercise and a healthy diet. Get outside if you can, walk, jog, work in the yard, or stay active inside like working out, dance classes, playing ball with your dog. Get your blood circulating and eat more greens and healthy foods. Also keep up with your hygiene.

- Emotional: Find ways to acknowledge what you are feeling and de-intensify the feelings that are causing you problems

- Mental: Spend time doing things that stimulate your brain like new hobbies, a new skill, reading, taking a class, learning a language. Choose to focus on positive thoughts, laughter, and fun.

- Social: Continue your social connections, whether that be with your family, friends, or support group digitally or over the phone. Online book clubs, game nights, and virtual get-togethers are all great.

- Spiritual: Continue to connect with those things that give us meaning and worth to what we are doing here on earth.

What resources or helpful tools are available for those who need help?

Physical support meetings aren’t happening right now, but the way that support is being offered through the web and social media has really changed. There are electronic meetings available through support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, CoDA, just to name a few sites. There are also sobriety groups or alcoholics anonymous digital meetings through social media, chat rooms, and telehealth calls. You can also call your sponsor for help. They are not only available for risky drinkers, they are also concerned about the people who have never sought out help and are now drinking more while stuck at home.