Academic journal article Alcohol Research: Current Reviews

Alcohol's Effect on Host Defense

Academic journal article Alcohol Research: Current Reviews

Alcohol's Effect on Host Defense

Article excerpt

Alcohol affects many organs, including the immune system, with even moderate amounts of alcohol influencing immune responses. Although alcohol can alter the actions of all cell populations involved in the innate and adaptive immune responses, the effect in many cases is a subclinical immunosuppression that becomes clinically relevant only after a secondary insult (e.g., bacterial or viral infection or other tissue damage). Alcohol's specific effects on the innate immune system depend on the pattern of alcohol exposure, with acute alcohol inhibiting and chronic alcohol accelerating inflammatory responses. The proinflammatory effects of chronic alcohol play a major role in the pathogenesis of alcoholic liver disease and pancreatitis, but also affect numerous other organs and tissues. In addition to promoting proinflammatory immune responses, alcohol also impairs anti-inflammatory cytokines. Chronic alcohol exposure also interferes with the normal functioning of all aspects of the adaptive immune response, including both cell-mediated and humoral responses. All of these effects enhance the susceptibility of chronic alcoholics to viral and bacterial infections and to sterile inflammation.

Key words: Alcohol effects and consequences; alcohol consumption; alcohol exposure; acute alcohol exposure; chronic alcohol exposure; alcohol use pattern; alcoholic liver disease; pancreatitis; immunity; immune system; immune response; innate immune response; adaptive immune response; immunosuppression; bacterial disease; viral disease; inflammatory response; proinflammatory response; anti-inflammatory; infection; inflammation


Alcohol has been the most common substance of use and abuse in human history. Moderate amounts of alcohol are enjoyed for its anxiolytic effects; however, its addictive properties can lead to chronic, excessive alcohol use and alcohol use disorder. In addition to its commonly recognized behavioral effects, alcohol affects many organs, including the immune system that controls the body's defense against infectious pathogens (e.g., bacteria and viruses) and other harmful agents. Chronic alcohol use is associated with significant alterations in the immune system that predispose people to viral and bacterial infections and cancer development. In general, severe chronic alcoholics are considered immuno-compromised hosts. Although moderate alcohol use has less obvious clinical effects on the immune system, both in vitro and in vivo studies indicate that even moderate amounts of alcohol and binge drinking modulate host immune responses.

This review gives a general overview of the immune effects of alcohol. However, it is important to realize that many aspects of alcohol consumption and its effects on immunity and host defense have not yet been fully elucidated. For example, the pattern of alcohol consumption (e.g., occasional binge drinking versus chronic heavy drinking) may affect the immune system in different ways that are yet to be explored.

Overview of the Immune System

The immune system serves to defend the host from pathogens and to prevent unwanted immune reactions to self. This defense involves coordinated complex interactions between two arms of the immune system--the innate and the adaptive immune responses. Innate immunity provides immediate responses to pathogen-derived or nonpathogen--associated (i.e., sterile) danger signals and results in activation of proinflammatory cytokines and/or Type I interferons, regardless of the underlying cause and without the body having encountered the pathogen before. Adaptive immunity, in contrast, which only sets in after a certain delay, is specific to the pathogen or antigen and requires an initial encounter with the pathogen or antigen to activate the response.

The innate immune response usually involves inflammatory reactions and/or production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and other signaling molecules. …

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