The immune system is a delicate balance of chemicals and microorganisms. Despite a common misconception that drinking alcohol can help kill germs in the body and thus cure colds, drinking can actually increase your chances of catching a cold. This has to do with how alcohol, as a chemical, interacts with the human immune system.
Our bodies naturally fight off most of the germs we come across every day before they make us sick. These germs include viruses, bacteria, fungi and more. This is the immune system at work: protecting us with the skin, antimicrobial proteins and white blood cells.
The immune system's primary defense against germs is our skin and mucous membranes. But certain enzymes inside the body also help to fight colds and diseases.
Although your grandmother may have made "hot toddies" to comfort those with colds, excessive alcohol consumption can weaken the immune system and make people more susceptible to colds. As a person drinks alcohol, their body becomes dehydrated. Without fluids and proper nutrition, white blood cells lose their ability to fight germs. When white blood cells are weakened, the chance of catching a cold goes up.
It is probably better to stick to chicken soup as a comfort food when you're sick, rather than any alcoholic beverages. It will keep you warm without affecting your white blood cells.
Frequent drinking can also disrupt sleep patterns. Recent studies have shown that the amount and quality of sleep a person gets is closely linked to their immunity against colds and flu.
Some scientists say that drinking in any capacity can negatively affect the immune system, although this theory is not universally supported. In fact, other experts suggest that regular, small amounts of alcohol (about one small glass of wine per day) can have positive effects on the cardiovascular system, because of antioxidants.
It is widely accepted that if there is any benefit to drinking wine for its antioxidant properties, it must be done with the utmost moderation.
But this poses a tricky question: How many drinks per day are considered too many for males and females? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintain there is no set amount that is moderate, since everyone's body is different.
However, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that moderate drinking is one drink or less per day for women and no more than two drinks each day for men. And remember, this is a daily ration. Just because you didn't drink all week doesn't mean you are still drinking in moderation if you have six drinks on a Saturday night.
In general, the best way to avoid a cold is to steer clear of germs, eat a healthy diet, get a bit of exercise and sleep for several hours every night. The effects of alcohol on the immune system are only slightly positive at best, if consumed in moderation. And unfortunately, alcohol will not cure a cold. Most experts recommend helping out your immune system during a cold by drinking plenty of juice and water, rather than beer and cocktails.
Centers for Disease Control (2006). Alcohol and Public Health. Retrieved November 19, 2007, from the CDC Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm#6.
Encyclopedia Brittanica (2007). Immune system. Retrieved November19, 2007, from Encyclopdia Britannica Online: http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9109569.
McKeith, G. (2006, November 21). Your Life: Eat Right With Gillian. The Mirror, p. 32.
information on health-related topics, not medical advice, diagnosis or
treatment recommendations. Please consult your physician if you have questions