Have you ever experienced drinking too much alcohol in a relatively short amount of time, and then, even after you recover from a possible hangover the next day, you develop another problem two or three days later? A cold, flu, or other virus?
A recent study published in the medical journal Alcohol offers an explanation. Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that beginning about 2 hours after the alcohol concentration reaches a peak in an alcohol “binge”, that the immune system starts to break down and malfunction.
The research involved healthy young adults with an average age of 27. Eight female and seven male volunteers drank from four to five shots of vodka in a short period of time. The amount given depended on the weight of each subject. The goal was that each one would reach a blood alcohol level of 0.08, which is the legal limit of drunk driving in most of the United States.
The same blood alcohol levels would be attained had the subjects drank 4 or 5 glasses of wine (about 150 ml), or 4 to 5 beers. In the volunteers, researchers drew blood samples after the alcohol intake to measure the activity of several types of white blood cells. These also included measuring “natural killer cells” and proteins called cytokines that are important parts of our body’s natural defense system.
Interestingly, the blood samples showed that initially—20 minutes after maximal intoxication— their immune systems actually improved. However, things quickly changed for worse, and at two hours and five hours after intoxication, the subjects showed a significant drop in circulating white blood cells and natural killer cells.
This means that these healthy individuals had depressed immune systems, and were more likely to suffer infections. Most commonly this would mean a viral infection such as a cold, but some public health experts have warned about more serious issues, such as an unsafe sexual encounter fueled by a binge drinking episode. A depressed immune system leaves the individuals more susceptible to being infected by sexually transmitted infections, including AIDS.
Besides the risk of a depressed immune system following a binge drinking episode, public health experts have noted other negative effects, including an increased risk of trauma, including gunshot wounds; and accidents. Further studies have even shown that people recover from trauma more slowly if the trauma was followed binge drinking. Wound healing is delayed, and binge drinkers are more prone to infections while recuperating. This study in Alcohol is not the first to suggest immune effects after one episode of drinking too much. Previous studies have reached similar conclusions.
The bottom line: avoid binge drinking, which means, for the typical woman, four drinks consumed within two hours. For a man, usually heavier, this means five or more drinks. So clearly you should avoid drinking anywhere near this much alcohol in such a short period of time, and when drinking any alcohol, make sure you drink enough water (non-carbonated) to avoid dehydration. Having food in the stomach delays the absorption of alcohol, which is a good thing.
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