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How Do Drugs and Alcohol Affect the Immune System?

Drug and alcohol addiction harm the body in many ways. Typically, this damage is pretty direct, such as the damage alcohol does to the liver or the damage cocaine does to the heart. Addictions can also directly and indirectly compromise the immune system, leading to increased risk of illness and infection.

This can happen in several ways. One way is by suppressing the immune system directly. White blood cells are one of the main ways the immune system fights infections. Alcohol reduces the number of white blood cells, making the body more vulnerable to infection. White blood cells are also responsible for destroying cancer cells. Alcohol damages the cells of the liver and digestive tract, increasing the likelihood of cancerous cells forming, but alcohol also reduces the number of white blood cells that would destroy those cancerous cells. As a result, regular heavy drinking makes you more prone to some kinds of cancer.

More often, the effect of drugs and alcohol on the immune system is less direct. Drugs and alcohol interfere with a number of processes that help fight infections. One important one is nutrition. Alcohol damages the digestive tract and stops nutrients from being absorbed efficiently. Consequently, even an alcoholic who eats a reasonably healthy diet may suffer from nutritional deficiencies. Alcohol also prevents the liver from producing certain vitamins used by the immune system and vital organs. You end up with a massively complex machine with random parts missing. Of course, if an addiction is bad enough, it can lead to neglecting nutrition entirely, relying on convenient junk food, or just not eating enough at all.

Another secondary effect that inhibits immune function is lack of sleep. Fighting infections is metabolically expensive and cellular repair mainly happens while you sleep. Most drugs interfere with sleep to some extent. Everyone knows cocaine and meth keep you from sleeping, but many people think alcohol helps them sleep. It might help you fall asleep, but it also prevents you from entering deep sleep, when most healing takes place. Other drugs, like opioids, can disrupt sleep patterns. Erratic sleep also prevents healing deep sleep.

Many drugs cause dehydration, which also impairs the immune system. The body’s mucous membranes are among the first lines of defense against infections. If the mucous membranes dry out, they can’t function properly and you become more prone to infection. Alcohol, meth, and MDMA are drugs that are especially bad for causing dehydration, but just as a serious addiction can cause you to neglect nutrition, it can also cause you to neglect fluid intake, or rely on soft drinks that contain tons of sugar and salt.

The last major way addiction can lead to more infections is simply by exposing you to more infections. You don’t always know what’s in drugs or if they were packaged in sanitary conditions. You may neglect hygiene or spend more time around other people who are sick because of chronically weak immune systems. You may be more likely to have unprotected sex or share needles. If you manage to contract HIV, your immune system is compromised in a huge way.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.