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Binge Drinking Suppresses the Immune System

Binge drinking not only makes people more accident-prone, it impairs their ability to recover from those accidents

(Photo: Louis Quail/In Pictures/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Binge drinking makes us more accident-prone, increasing the risk of falling over, banging into things and—when behind the wheel—of getting into a wreck. Indeed, about one third of trauma victims come into the emergency room with traces of alcohol in their system.

According to new research, however, physical injury isn't the only harm we potentially inflict on ourselves when binge drinking. High levels of alcohol also suppress the immune system. This means that it likely takes longer to recover from whatever injuries we acquire while drinking and that our chances of catching a cold probably go up. 

Researchers from Loyola University Chicago recruited eight women and seven men to take part in a binge drinking experiment. They gave the participants four to five shots of vodka—enough to qualify as binge drinking. The researchers took blood samples from the participants three times after they reached peak intoxication. Twenty minutes after hitting their booze high, the participants' immune systems were actually stronger than normal. They had higher counts of three white blood cells and more cytokines, special proteins that accompany immune activity. 

Two hours later, however, this trend had reversed. The white blood cells had cleared out, and a new type of cytokines—ones that signal a decrease in immune activity—had appeared in the participants' blood. At five hours after peak intoxication, the researchers found that the participants still suffered from a depressed immune system. 

The scientists plan to follow up this study by visiting burn units at hospitals and seeing whether or not patients recover differently based on the presence of alcohol in their bloodstream.   

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