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Does Alcohol Cause Inflammation?

Heavy alcohol consumption can cause systemic inflammation leading to several health conditions. Alcohol-induced inflammation can harm the gut, compromise the immune system, impact brain function, lead to joint pain, cause heart disease, and more.
Does Alcohol Cause Inflammation?

Studies show that heavy drinkers have higher than normal levels of inflammation in the body, which can lead to several serious and life-threatening health conditions. 


The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines heavy drinking as:

  • Consuming more than 4 standard drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks per week for men
  • Consuming more than 3 standard drinks on any day or more than 7 drinks per week for women

    Below are guidelines for what is considered a standard drink:

    • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content).
    • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content).
    • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content).
    • 1.5 ounces or a shot of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor.

    You're likely aware that heavy alcohol abuse can cause can cause fatty liver disease, hepatitis, pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. It's also common knowledge that heavy alcohol use can damage the kidneys over time. However, you may not know that heavy alcohol consumption is also associated with heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke, joint problems, issues with the immune system, dementia and learning issues, digestive problems, and mental health issues. Inflammation is at the core of these issues.


    What is Inflammation?


    Inflammation is a naturally occurring response to injury, infection, a toxic substance, or irritation. It is a natural part of the immune system's defense, as it can provide protection and help the body heal. However, while inflammation is a normal and necessary process for maintaining health, chronic inflammation can have a detrimental effect on your health.


    When the body detects damage or harmful stimuli, it triggers complex events to combat the threat and initiate the healing process. The immune system releases chemicals, such as cytokines and histamines, that promote blood flow to the affected area, causing it to become red, swollen, and warm. These chemicals also attract immune cells to the site of inflammation to help remove pathogens, damaged cells, or foreign substances.


    • Acute inflammation: A short-term response that typically resolves once the threat or harm is eliminated, and the healing process is complete. If you cut your finger, sprain your ankle, or develop a sore throat, you'll notice pain, redness, and swelling. The affected area may also feel warm or hot. These are signs of acute inflammation in response to an injury or infection. Acute inflammation typically does not cause lasting damage, as it subsides quickly once the harmful stimuli is removed.


    • Chronic inflammation: This type of inflammation can persist for weeks, months, or even years. Chronic inflammation is a prolonged low-level inflammatory response and can be caused by long-term exposure to environmental irritants or toxins, autoimmune disorders, untreated injury, or certain untreated diseases or infections. Things like exposure to toxic mold, an untreated back injury, cancer, or lupus, can cause chronic inflammation. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation can harm the body, as it may contribute to tissue damage over time and the development of various health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and more.


    How Can Alcohol Contribute to Inflammation?


    As a toxic substance, alcohol puts a lot of stress on your organs, organ systems, and other areas of the body. Below are some ways that alcohol contributes to inflammation in the body.  


    Gut Imbalance


    Consuming alcohol can disrupt the balance between "good" and "bad" bacteria in the gut. [2] This imbalance is called dysbiosis, and it negatively impacts your immune system. Alcohol also promotes the overgrowth of bacteria, which further disrupts gut health. Both of these factors can contribute to inflammation in the gut. [3]


    An increase in chemicals called endotoxins is one result. Endotoxins activate the proteins and immune cells that promote inflammation. Alcohol can also cause the body to become dehydrated, leading to fatigue and constipation.


    Intestinal Permeability 


    Excessive amounts of alcohol can result in increased intestinal permeability or "leaky gut," where the intestinal wall becomes more porous, allowing large substances to pass through. Consequently, the protective function of the bloodstream is compromised, allowing bacteria and their toxins to enter the bloodstream and spread to other organs. 


    People with alcohol use disorder (AUD) may undergo a significant increase in intestinal permeability, enabling the passage of large molecules like endotoxins, contributing to inflammation. [3]


    Not only does alcohol promote the production of endotoxins in the gut, but it also weakens the intestinal barrier, which would normally prevent their passage. As a result, these endotoxins and the ensuing inflammation can disseminate throughout the body via the bloodstream. This alcohol-induced inflammation can affect various organs and systems. For instance, alcohol is a significant risk factor for gout, a common and painful type of inflammatory arthritis, and can trigger flare-ups.


    Weakens Immune Response


    Researchers believe alcohol may interfere with the immune system, leading to further inflammation. 


    Research conducted on mice reveals that alcohol slows down the immune response in the intestines, impairing the immune system's ability to combat harmful bacteria. [4] Moreover, alcohol suppresses various crucial molecules and cells vital for an effective immune response.


    Alcohol can adversely affect the ability of your organs to function and interact properly. In individuals with a healthy immune system, the interactions between organs and organ systems mitigate the detrimental effects of endotoxins. For instance, the liver plays a role in detoxifying these substances, while the central nervous system contributes to anti-inflammatory regulation.


    Excessive alcohol consumption appears to compromise both your immune system and the supportive functions of your organs. Consequently, alcohol creates issues within your body and limits your body's capacity to rectify these problems, making the body more susceptible to outside pathogens and leading to more illness.


    Effects of Alcohol-Induced Inflammation


    Alcohol induced inflammation is not limited to specific parts of the body and can affect people differently. The good news is that the damage is often reversible if you limit your drinking or give up drinking alcohol altogether.


    Below are some effects of alcohol induced inflammation:


    1) Infection


    Chronic inflammation caused by alcohol consumption harms immune cells and cilia, which are tiny hair-like structures responsible for clearing viruses and bacteria from the airways. Consequently, individuals become more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections in the respiratory tract and lungs.


    2) Alcoholic Hepatitis and Cirrhosis


    Heavy alcohol consumption leads to the development of alcoholic hepatitis, which is characterized by liver inflammation. When the liver metabolizes alcohol, it generates toxins that can typically be eliminated from the body when it's functioning well. However, prolonged alcohol use impairs the liver's ability to effectively remove these toxins, resulting in liver damage. 


    Alcoholic hepatitis occurs when the liver becomes increasingly inflamed and enlarged, destroying liver cells. If alcohol consumption continues, it can progress to cirrhosis, a severe and irreversible condition characterized by the buildup of fibrous tissue in the liver, replacing healthy liver cells.



    3) Joint and Muscle Conditions


    Inflammation can impact joints and muscles, and alcohol contributes to this effect in several ways. First, the dehydrating properties of alcohol can reduce lubrication between joints, leading to ongoing joint inflammation and pain. 


    Additionally, alcohol is rich in purines, which are substances that break down into uric acid. The excessive buildup of uric acid can result in the formation of sharp crystals within the joints, causing painful inflammation and giving rise to conditions like osteoarthritis and gout.


    Lastly, alcohol-induced inflammation has been known to exacerbate fibromyalgia symptoms, characterized by widespread muscular pain.


    Consider Healthycell's Joint Health & Mobility microgel if you want a good joint supplement. It contains a blend of potent extracts and nutrients that support joint lubrication and cushioning, along with a low-inflammation lifestyle, which can improve joint comfort and range of motion for a better quality of life.



    4) Heart Disease


    Elevated inflammation levels also increase the likelihood of developing heart disease. High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) is an inflammation marker used to evaluate the likelihood of developing coronary artery disease. A study conducted in Norway demonstrated that individuals with excessive alcohol consumption exhibited elevated hs-CRP levels, indicating that the inflammation was causing continuous damage to the heart's blood vessels and escalating the risk of heart disease. [5]


    For a good heart supplement, consider Healthycell's Heart & Vascular Health which contains a blend of plant extracts, vitamins, and minerals to help maintain normal cholesterol, triglyceride, and blood pressure levels.



    5) Mental Health Conditions


    The influence of alcohol-induced inflammation on mental health is frequently overlooked, even though research points to an increased likelihood of developing depression and anxiety. Additionally, heavy alcohol use can exacerbate symptoms of other mental health disorders. It's also true that people with mental illness are more likely to abuse alcohol.


    While multiple factors contribute to the co-occurrence of alcohol use disorder, anxiety, and depression, inflammation plays a role in this relationship. 


    In the brain, alcohol releases cytokines, chemicals associated with inflammation and known to worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, and alcohol cravings. Collaborating with a therapist specializing in alcohol therapy can be beneficial in addressing both alcohol use disorder and mental health conditions concurrently.



    6) Brain Damage


    The brain contains specialized immune cells that produce pro-inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines when they are exposed to alcohol. Prolonged alcohol exposure leads to persistent activation of these inflammation-inducing chemicals, resulting in neuronal damage, cell death, and behavioral changes like anxiety and cognitive impairment.


    Moreover, alcohol-induced inflammation has been shown to directly harm both the brain's white matter and gray matter. Damage to the white matter can impact problem-solving abilities, multitasking, and memory. Damage to the gray matter can give rise to difficulties in movement, memory, and emotional regulation. In general, chronic brain inflammation leads to scarring and a reduction in brain volume.



    Reducing Inflammation from Alcohol


    To reduce alcohol-induced inflammation and its accompanying short-term and long-term consequences, the best course of action is to lower your alcohol consumption. Below are some tips for drinking and staying healthy. 


    Look at 7 Ways to Lower Inflammation in Your Body Fast for more information on lowering inflammation through other lifestyle changes. 



    Drink in Moderation


    Limiting your alcohol intake to no more than one standard drink per day for women or two standard drinks per day for men can decrease inflammatory markers.


    Eat Before You Drink


    Consuming food before consuming alcohol can help delay the process of gastric emptying, which refers to the speed at which substances move from the stomach to the small intestine. By doing so, the absorption rate of alcohol into the bloodstream decreases, reducing the amount of alcohol available to induce inflammation.


    Specific food choices can assist the body in effectively eliminating toxins and their harmful byproducts. Try considering anti-inflammatory foods like fruit and vegetables rich in fiber and phytonutrients. Additionally, seasoning these foods with spics like turmeric, rosemary, caraway, and ginger can further enhance their anti-inflammatory properties. 


    Try to steer clear of refined carbohydrates (such as sugary foods), fatty or fried foods (like pizza and fries), as well as red meats and processed meats (typical tailgate foods like burgers and hot dogs), as they are known to cause inflammation.



    Stay Hydrated


    By maintaining moderate alcohol consumption and ensuring adequate hydration, individuals can partially counteract the effects of alcohol-related inflammation. A general guideline is to drink an 8-ounce glass of water following each alcoholic beverage consumed.


    Avoid sugary alcoholic beverages, as sugar can worsen inflammation. In addition, consider adding lemon to your water as it contains a high dose of vitamins and plant compounds, particularly flavonoids.





    Sleep deprivation has been linked to markers of inflammation, including increases in inflammatory markers like cytokines. [6] Look at How to Sleep Better: 12 Pro Tips For Better Sleep Tonight, or consider adding Healthycell's REM Sleep to your sleep regimen. 



    Manage stress


    Accumulating evidence suggests that stress can trigger an inflammatory response in the brain, potentially increasing vulnerability to mental illness, depression, and other diseases associated with stress. [7]


    To read more about how stress affects the body, look at Can Stress Cause High Blood Pressure?



    Which Alcohol Is the Least Inflammatory?


    Typically, if you are in good overall health, consuming a small quantity of alcohol on a daily basis is unlikely to trigger inflammation. Alcohol reduces the ability of certain body cells to destroy free radicals. If you are dealing with persistent inflammation and swelling, it is advisable to abstain from alcohol consumption.


    While moderation is always important, consider the four libations below if you're looking for the least inflammatory alcohol.



    Red Wine


    Red wine contains beneficial antioxidants such as resveratrol, which can promote heart health and potentially reduce inflammatory markers like CRP. Nonetheless, it is important to consume red wine in moderation.


    However, it is worth noting that certain alcoholic beverages, including red wine, can potentially contain mycotoxins, which are harmful byproducts of mold that can contribute to various health issues. To maximize the beneficial qualities of red wine while minimizing the risk of mycotoxin exposure, it is advisable to choose organic and sulfate-free brands from Europe. These brands often adhere to stricter guidelines and undergo thorough testing to ensure lower mold contamination levels.





    Thanks to the fermentation process, champagne possesses certain probiotic properties that can potentially contribute to maintaining a favorable balance of beneficial bacteria in your gut microbiome, promoting gut health.





    Look for tequila that is made exclusively from 100% agave, as this is the preferred option. Some lower-quality brands may include grains as fillers to reduce costs. It is also recommended to avoid pre-made tequila mixes that often contain processed ingredients. Instead, use mixers such as fresh lime juice and simple syrup to create a more wholesome and flavorful margarita.



    Hard Cider


    Hard dry cider is a refreshing option that is naturally gluten-free. Cider, derived from apples, offers a flavorful choice. However, it's important to note that cider still contains significant sugar, so it should always be consumed in moderation. Additionally, it's advisable to carefully examine the label to ensure that no barley or other gluten-containing ingredients have been added for extra flavor.



    In Conclusion


    Heavy alcohol drinkers tend to have higher levels of inflammation, which can lead to various health conditions. While inflammation is a natural immune response to injury, infection, or irritation, chronic inflammation can be harmful. If you do decide to drink alcohol regularly, moderation is still important, and try to consider libations that are the least likely to induce inflammation.



    About the Author


    Dr. Giampapa is a world-renowned medical doctor, inventor, and surgeon specializing in anti-aging medicine. He recently received a nomination for the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking stem cell research, as well as the Edison Award for the Healthycell nutritional supplement for cell health. He was also awarded the A4M Science & Technology award for his development of the BioMarker Matrix Profile – the first computer program to measure aging.





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