Textbook Spotlight: Don’t Drink and Phagocytose

June 5th, 2014 in New Science with 8 Comments

Phagocytosis 1

[Featured Image courtesy Animated Healthcare]

Mavenites, this is my first installment of my “Textbook Spotlight” series (replacing the “Sneak Peak series), highlighting sections from the latest edition of “Microbiology, A Systems Approach.”  This entry from Chapter 14:  Host Defenses I is augmented with some new information from our friend Jason Tetro writing for Popular Science.

We all know that drinking can impair your decision-making and driving skills, but scientists have recently discovered another downside to alcohol consumption:  it can slow down your immune response. Gyongyi Szabo and her colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School compared the function of monocytes exposed to alcohol levels equivalent to five drinks a day per week to those without any alcohol.  The group found that the boozing monocytes reacted much more slowly than teetotaling monocytes and produced only half of interferon-1, a chemical key to fighting viral infection.  The drunk monocytes also over-produced the inflammatory chemical tumor necrosis factor alpha, which can damage tissue.  Szabo’s group found evidence from medical records that indicate that heavy drinkers die from HIV and Hepatitis C sooner than non-drinkers.

Phagocytosis 2

[Image courtesy www.nobelprize.org]

Another study showed that cells responsible for activating T-cells were also impaired by alcohol.  Dendritic cells are key components of the specific immune response (discussed in chapter 15) in activating T cells to fight specific pathogens.  In a study performed by Jack R. Wands and his colleagues at Brown University, Providence, RI, the activity of dendritic cells in alcoholic versus non-alcoholic mice were compared.  In the alcoholic mouse model, dendritic cells showed lowered T-cell activation and lowered cytokine production.  Both of these studies illustrate why alcoholics have a greater susceptibility to bacterial and viral infections and do not respond well to vaccines.  When you get drunk, so does your immune system. 


Jason Tetro’s recent article, “The Medical and Microbiological Consequences of Alcohol Abuse” discusses some of the well-known issues that alcohol has on the human body:  cancer, liver disease, heart disease, and loss of bone mass, but also addresses two studies that show the effect that alcohol has on the human microbiome.  In one study out of the University of California, San Diego showed that alcohol consumption lowers the population of healthy bacteria, such as Lactobacillus while simultaneously allowing pathogens such as Prevotella to overgrow.  The presence of these pathogens causes inflammation, leading to gut permeability, and the release of liver-damaging toxins to the bloodstream.  Another study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School showed the detrimental effects of even one night of binge drinking.  In this study, researchers found that pathogenic bacteria were activated and liver-damaging toxins were released into the bloodstream. 

SEM gut

[Image courtesy Journal of Experimental Medicine]

While a number of studies show the health benefits of light to moderate alcohol consumption, both the research I cited in Chapter 14 and the research cited in Jason’s article show that going on a bender can have a damaging effect on your immune system and your microbiome.

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Kelly Cowan

About Kelly Cowan

I’m a mom, teacher, scientist, author and community activist. I work at an open-admissions regional campus of a midwestern university, where I teach microbiology and epidemiology to a lot of pre-health professions students and a few poets and business majors.

8 Responses

  1. Hank says:

    Thanks for the study summaries! Every little bit helps!

  2. kim says:

    interesting findings. I am curious to know if exposing the organisms (human or otherwise) to probiotics as well as to the alcohol would prevent the negative health outcomes

    • Kelly Cowan Kelly Cowan says:

      That’s an interesting idea. I don’t know if consuming probiotics with alcohol will minimize its effects. The jury is still out on the effect of probiotics on the health of the gut microbiota. We’ll keep looking!

  3. Han says:

    O think those findings will not come as a surprise to any weathered drunkard. I’ve been told of the infamous beer-shits when apparently your gut-microbiome just throws their collective hands in the air and commits suicide.
    Also, I have noticed that drunks have a lot more respiratory infections. This whole article comes across as ‘captain obvious strikes again! Alcohol is bad for you, especially when you can’t drink in moderation’

  4. [...] Several studies are shedding light on how alcohol impairs the cells that make your immune system function — which could help explain some long-term health problems in alcoholics. [...]

  5. [...] Several studies are shedding light on how alcohol impairs the cells that make your immune system function — which could help explain some long-term health problems in alcoholics. [...]

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