German researchers have recently reported on a study exploring the effects of heavy alcohol consumption on the body’s immune system. Previous studies have shown that chronic alcoholics have an increased risk of infection following surgery. Transplantation centres generally insist that alcoholics abstain from alcohol for at least six months before an operation because alcohol abuse interferes with the immune system, rendering the body more prone to infection. However, this study found that even individuals who had not consumed alcohol for several years still had an abnormal immune response making them vulnerable to infections, including potentially life-threatening conditions.
The researchers compared 9 patients with Alcoholic liver disease (ALD) and 8 patients with Virus induced cirrhosis (VLC) who were scheduled for liver grafting. A test was used in which a particular hormone was injected into the patients’ bloodstream, triggering a response to simulate that of surgical stress. The levels of various substances associated with the immune response were then measured, in order to evaluate the immune systems effectiveness.
The results showed that so-called immune reactivity was suppressed to a significantly greater degree in the patients with ALD than in those with VIC. This was despite the fact that the former group had abstained from alcohol for an average of three and a half years. In line with the outcome of the tests on the immune system, the rate of infections had been far higher in the ALD patients than in the VIC patients over the previous year 67% compared with 13%. Two of the alcoholic group also developed potentially serious virus infections after surgery.
“These results suggest a persistently altered stress response despite long-term abstinence, which may be a relevant pathomechanism for the increased preoperative infection rate in ALD patients during the preceding year,” the authors conclude. “An altered stress response with an enhanced infection rate is well known among patients with actual alcohol-use disorders, but to the best of our knowledge it has not been reported that patients are still affected after such a long abstinence time.
“The consequences (of high intake of alcohol) include an infection rate after (liver transplant) surgery that is two and a half times higher in alcohol abusers than in teetotallers.”
Source: Immune Reactivity is More Suppressed in Patients with Alcoholic Liver Disease than in Patients with Virus-Induced Cirrhosis after CRH Stimulation, Alcoholism:Clinical and Experimental Research(2006), 30, 140149