Opposing effects of alcohol on the immune system

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Feb 4:65:242-51. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2015.09.001. Epub 2015 Sep 14.


Several studies have described a dose-dependent effect of alcohol on human health with light to moderate drinkers having a lower risk of all-cause mortality than abstainers, while heavy drinkers are at the highest risk. In the case of the immune system, moderate alcohol consumption is associated with reduced inflammation and improved responses to vaccination, while chronic heavy drinking is associated with a decreased frequency of lymphocytes and increased risk of both bacterial and viral infections. However, the mechanisms by which alcohol exerts a dose-dependent effect on the immune system remain poorly understood due to a lack of systematic studies that examine the effect of multiple doses and different time courses. This review will summarize our current understanding of the impact of moderate versus excessive alcohol consumption on the innate and adaptive branches of the immune system derived from both in vitro as well as in vivo studies carried out in humans and animal model studies.

Keywords: Alcohol; Gene expression; Glucocorticoid; HPA axis; Immunity; Infection; Inflammation; Vaccination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol-Related Disorders / immunology*
  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / pharmacology*
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / toxicity
  • Ethanol / metabolism
  • Ethanol / pharmacology*
  • Ethanol / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Immune System / drug effects*


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol