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Binge drinking compromises immune system

Binge drinking in young, healthy adults significantly disrupts the immune system, according to a study led by a researcher now at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Depending on their weight, study drank four or five shots of vodka. Twenty minutes after reaching peak intoxication, their immune systems revved up. But when measured again, at two hours and five hours after peak intoxication, their immune systems had become less active than when sober.

The study by Dr Majid Afshar and colleagues found that binge drinking increases the risk of falls, burns, gunshot wounds, car accidents and other traumatic injuries. One-third of trauma patients have alcohol in their systems.

In addition to increasing the risk of traumatic injuries, binge drinking impairs the body's ability to recover from such injuries. Previous studies have found, for example, that binge drinking delays wound healing, increases blood loss and makes patients more prone to pneumonia and infections from catheters. Binge drinkers also are more likely to die from traumatic injuries.

The study illustrates another potentially harmful effect of binge drinking. Drinkers generally understand how binge drinking alters behaviour. "But there is less awareness of alcohol’s harmful effects in other areas, such as the immune system," said Dr Elizabeth Kovacs, a co-author of the study and director of Loyola's Alcohol Research Programme.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as drinking enough to reach or exceed a blood alcohol content of .08, the legal limit for driving. This typically occurs after four drinks for women or five drinks for men, consumed in two hours. One in six US adults binge drinks about four times a month, and binge drinking is more common in young adults aged 18 to 34, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study included eight women and seven men with a median age of 27. Each volunteer drank enough shots of vodka – generally four or five – to meet the definition of binge drinking. (A 1.5 oz shot of vodka is the alcohol equivalent of a five-ounce glass of wine or 12-ounce can of beer.) Afshar and colleagues took blood samples at 20 minutes, two hours and five hours after peak intoxication because these are times when intoxicated patients typically arrive at trauma centres for treatment of alcohol-related injuries.

The blood samples showed that 20 minutes after peak intoxication, there was increased immune system activity. There were higher levels of three types of white blood cells that are key components of the immune system: leukocytes, monocytes and natural killer cells. There also were increased levels of proteins called cytokines that signal the immune system to ramp up.

Two hours and five hours after peak intoxication, researchers found the opposite effect: fewer circulating monocytes and natural killer cells and higher levels of different types of cytokines that signal the immune system to become less active.

Afshar is planning a follow-up study of burn unit patients. He will compare patients who had alcohol in their system when they arrived with patients who were alcohol-free. He will measure immune system markers from each group, and compare their outcomes, including lung injury, organ failure and death.

In South Africa, the links between disease and alcohol misuse are well-documented – but the new research adds a component, reports The Times. Dr Richard Matzopoulos, a specialist at the University of Cape Town, said alcohol misuse and violence are the "leading contributors to the burden of disease in South Africa" and strongly reinforce each other.

"South African drinkers rank among the top five riskiest drinkers in the world, with 33% to 40% of drinkers consuming alcohol in risky amounts." He said up to 47% of intentional injuries could be directly attributed to the use of alcohol. Professor Charles Parry, director of a drug research unit at the SA Medical Council, said South Africa had one of the "highest levels of alcohol consumption anywhere in the world".

[link url=""]Loyola Medicine release[/link]
[link url=""]Alcohol journal abstract[/link]
[link url=""]Full report in The Times[/link]

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