Drinking and Exercise: A Bumpy Ride for Your Immune System

by Ann Lokuta, School of Public Health

The following post was originally written for Mind the Science Gap (MTSG), a blog written by UM School of Public Health students who are taking a “Communicating Science through Social Media” course. Don’t forget to check them out when you are done reading this post!

99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer – take one down, pass it around, and BOOM – the next day you’re coughing, sneezing, and coming down with an ugly case of something that’s not just a hangover.  What exactly happened inside your body between 6 P.M. the night before, and 6 P.M. the day after?  It turns out that those 99 beers weren’t only affecting your inhibitions – they were taking shots at your immune system, as well.

Let’s go back to Beer #1…

I’ve decided to use beer as my drink of choice, but all alcoholic drinks contain ethanol (aka alcohol) – the compound that is responsible for that warm, fuzzy feeling some of you may be familiar with.  As you sip, gulp, or chug your first beer, the liver immediately gets to work metabolizing ethanol into mainly water and carbon dioxide.  Given about an hour’s time, your liver can successfully clear the amount of ethanol in one alcoholic drink (12 oz beer, 5 oz wine, or 1 oz liquor) from  your system.  What the liver didn’t plan on, was Beer #1 turning into Beer #2 before 60 minutes was up.

Photo Credit: bunchofpants, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo Credit: bunchofpants, Flickr Creative Commons

Beer #2 and beyond…

Stressed, overwhelmed, and ticked off, your liver starts to back-up – unable to handle the amount of alcohol absorbed through your stomach and GI tract.  While you begin to feel sensations of relaxation, sociability, euphoria, hunger, and lethargy (possibly in that order), the ethanol molecules that bypassed liver metabolism take a free ride via the bloodstream to take jabs at some innocent bystanders.

Your Immune System gets sucker punched…

Unassuming and unexpecting, your immune system may be taking a temporary hit here.   A couple of uber motivated individuals, Stephen Pruett and Ruping Fan, constructed a binge drinking mouse model to test the effect of acute alcohol abuse (as opposed to chronic excessive alcohol consumption) on the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines known to be associated with immune function.  The mice were instructed to bong four beers prior to the study – kidding.  In reality, they were administered 6g/kg of ethanol at time increments of 0.5, 2, or 24 hours before they were given lipopolysaccharide, a molecule which induces the production of certain cytokines.  Pruett and Fan found that selective cytokine production was inhibited at each of these time intervals, indicating that even 24 hours after the last drop of alcohol is consumed, the immune system is still in a state that could increase the risk of infection.

In English, please…

The study is basically telling us that when we drink enough alcohol in one sitting to overwhelm our livers (more than one drink an hour), the ethanol in our system may be temporarily strangling the life out of our immune systems.  Even 24 hours after you had your last sip, the little guys that work so hard to keep you healthy, are still trying to catch their breath.  You might be wondering how this really applies to you, since Pruett and Fan experimented with mice, not humans.  This is a noteworthy concern, but since mice and men do have some comparable immune characteristics, we also should be concerned with the fact that what’s happening to our furry friends when they’ve had a few too many, could be happening to us, as well.

I’ll be fine.  I sweat out the alcohol with a killer workout “sesh”…

Maybe.  Maybe not.  How “killer” is your workout?  Sweating is definitely a way to get rid of ethanol (and to reek of booze), but vigorous exercise is also a way to give your immune system another kick in the gut.  As exercise intensity and duration increases, the number of certain immune cells (T cells & B cells) drops proportionally and may take 24 hours to return to pre-“sweat sesh” levels.  Under normal, healthy circumstances, a fit individual will usually make a healthy recovery from this fleeting immunosuppression.  For an already immunocompromised person, this might up your chances of contracting the nasty cold that the sneezing gym rat on the treadmill next to you is dealing with.  Do not take this as an excuse to lie horizontal all day.  As I said before, the more intense the workout, the greater the punch to your immune system.  Stick with some light to moderate exercise that won’t have such a “knock you on your butt” effect – leisure bike ride, long walk on the beach, light skip to the supermarket – you get the point.

Show yourself some nutritious love…

Give yourself some of the TLC that Mom would have if you were sick at home – substituting the ice cream and Vernor’s, for veggies and H2O.  After the havoc alcohol wreaked on your insides, your body will be crying for water, begging for immune boosting nutrients, and craving carbs to settle your stomach and stabilize your blood sugar.  So do yourself a favor and pass the french fries and Coke.  Load up on the food and drink that will actually make you feel better: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and water, my friend.  The Mayo Clinic staff identified 10 of earth’s edibles that contain Vitamin C and other cold-combating warriors: spinach, apples, blueberries, sweet potatoes, almonds, beans, salmon, broccoli, wheat germ, and tomatoes.  Pair some of these super foods with your favorite whole grains and plenty of H2O to give your body the extra help it needs to recover.

Disclaimers…

100% of the time I will recommend AGAINST drinking 99 beers.  The reference to the song was used purely as a joke.

99% of the time I WILL recommend exercise, but there are those specific situations when taking a day off (or at least taking it easy) could be to your benefit.

You should show yourself some nutritious love EVERYDAY – not just when you’re feeling down and out.

And after all that, I bet I know just what you’re thinking – TGIF.

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