It looks like we've got another bullet point to add to that ever-growing list of reasons why binge drinking is bad for you. Alongside potential alcoholism, long-term heart disease, and generally all-around poor decision making, swinging back booze can apparently also kill your immune system.
A new study in the journal Alcohol, led by Loyola University Chicago's Dr. Majid Afshar, asked 15 testers—with a median age of 27—to drink, depending on their weight, between four to five vodka shots. (Consuming that much alcohol in such a short period of time certainly constitutes binge drinking.) Afshar and his researchers took blood samples 20 minutes after the subjects reached "peak intoxication," and again two and five hours later. Afshar found that the subjects' immune systems first revved up—working hard to fight off any sickness—after 20 minutes, but then slowed down significantly by the two- and five-hour measuring points.
To get more specific, Afshar saw higher levels of immune system essentials like proteins and white blood cells—specifically leukocytes, monocytes, and natural killer cells—after the 20-minute mark. But after two hours, and again at five hours, Afshar noted the opposite: Fewer monocytes and natural killer cells circulated around the immune system. This whole process is known as a biphasic immunologic response, but in practical terms, the immune system is significantly weaker a few hours after someone's drunkenness has hit full force.
"Our immune system is our first line of defense," Afshar says. "There are long-term effects, if they do get sick—like a chest cold, they don't recover as well. We showed that there's a large disruption in the immune response."
It's pretty well-known (and ignored) that binge drinking can be harmful, but Afshar's study brings some light to the non-immediate consequences of drinking, aside from the obvious short-term dangers like drunk driving and impaired judgment.
"When dealing with the effects of alcohol, [people] don't consider the binge pattern. Having four to five drinks in a matter of a few hours is considered normal," Afshar adds, "but we showed that just one episode of a binge like this causes disruptions in the immune system, and can potentially play a role in the way people respond to illness."
On that note, have a good New Year's Eve!