How alcohol weakens the body’s ability to fight disease

Long-term drinkers may look healthy, but if they are really sick or injured, they may find it harder to cure. Drinking alcohol puts pressure on the hormonal system and changes the body’s immune function.

A study of laboratory animals by the Salk Institute found that long-term drinking can impair the body’s ability to respond to stressors such as illness or injury. Researchers say that excessive drinking can weaken the body’s defenses and cause illness.

Catherine Rivier, a professor in the Clayton Foundation Peptide Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, studied the effects of alcohol on the stress response of laboratory rats. One group of rats was exposed to alcohol vapor, while the other group of normal rats served as a control group.

Fight or flight response

The rats were exposed to alcohol vapor for 6 hours a day for 8 days. Then all the mice were exposed to two types of stress-electric shocks and toxin injections, and their hormone levels were observed.

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The stress response, also known as the “fight or flight” response, originates in an area of ​​the brain called the hypothalamus, which is located deep in the center of the brain.

When the body is stressed, the hypothalamus releases hormones called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) and vasopressin (VP). Rivier reports that these two hormones enter the pituitary gland and cause the secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).

ACTH then enters the bloodstream and causes the adrenal glands to produce corticosteroids. These chemicals can cause nutrients (such as glucose) to redirect to areas of the body that are under stress.

Stress can cause illness

In control rats, hormone levels remained normal and in line with expectations. In the alcohol group, CRF and VP levels and cellular responses in the hypothalamus were greatly reduced.

Rivier said that if CRF levels are low, the body may not respond adequately during stressful periods. “CRF is definitely the core of our stress response.”

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Dipak Sarkar, a professor and professor in the Department of Animal Science at Rutgers University, said: “Stress can change the body’s immune function and cause illness, such as when a student gets sick during an exam or a family member dies.”

Consequences of drinking

Rivier said that she wanted to conduct related research on alcoholic rats and rats that voluntarily drink alcohol. Past studies have shown that there are differences in the brains of rats that voluntarily drink and, like the rats in this study, the brains of rats that drink without choice.

“Most of the findings about the consequences of alcohol that we and others have discovered also occur in humans,” she said.