Though younger people famously face less grueling hangovers than older adults, according to a new study, they should not make the mistake of believing they are immune from the adverse consequences of alcohol. In fact, the study has found that binge drinking in young, healthy adults significantly disrupts the immune system.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 adults in the US binge drink four times a month, with the most common binge-drinking group being young adults between the ages of 18-34.
Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as drinking enough to reach or exceed a blood alcohol content of .08, which is also the legal limit for driving. This level is usually achieved after four drinks for women or five drinks for men, consumed over 2 hours.
Previous research has shown that one third of trauma patients have alcohol in their systems and that binge drinking increases the risk of falls, burns, gunshot wounds, car accidents and other traumatic injuries.
But in addition to increasing the risk of these injuries in the first place, binge drinking also reduces the ability of the body to recover from traumatic injuries. Studies have shown that binge drinking contributes to delaying wound healing, increasing blood loss and makes patients more susceptible to infection.
Binge drinkers are also more likely to die from traumatic injuries, studies have found.
Elizabeth Kovacs, PhD, a co-author of the study and director of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine’s Alcohol Research Program, says that while drinkers understand how binge drinking alters behavior, there is less awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects in other areas, such as the immune system.
In the Loyola study – the results of which are published in the journal Alcohol – the authors recruited eight men and eight women with a median age of 27. Each participant drank four or five shots of vodka – enough to meet the definition of binge drinking.
Taking blood samples from the participants 20 minutes after reaching peak intoxication, the researchers observed that the immune systems of the participants “revved up.”
Measuring the participants’ immune responses again at 2 and 5 hours after peak intoxication, however, the researchers found that the participants’ immune systems had become less active than when they were sober.
In these blood samples, there were higher levels of three types of white blood cells – leukocytes, monocytes and natural killer cells – that are considered to be key components of the immune system, as well as increased levels of cytokines – the proteins that signal the immune system to reduce activity.
The intervals at which the blood samples were taken are relevant because these are the times following intoxication when patients typically arrive at trauma centers seeking treatment for alcohol-related injuries.
Next, the authors will conduct a similar study among burn unit patients – comparing those who had alcohol in their system upon arrival and patients who had not consumed alcohol. Again, immune system markers will be measured from each group, but their outcomes – such as lung injury, organ failure and death – will also be compared.