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Ear to the Ground

Scientists’ Advice for This New Year’s Eve: Have a Drink, Boost Your Immune System

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Posted on Dec 31, 2013
chrischapman (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A study released this month found a possible connection between moderate drinking and the ability to fend off germs. Scientists are already hoping the new research could help them find ways to heighten our bodies’ responses to infections and vaccines, and perhaps even create a pharmaceutical alternative to alcohol that will have similar effects.

In the meantime, scientists seem to be giving you permission to savor that glass of champagne as you toast to a healthy new year.

Mother Jones delineates the study:

A team of researchers from Oregon Health & Science University trained 12 rhesus macaques—chosen for the similarity between their immune system and ours—to drink a 4 percent ethanol cocktail. They vaccinated the monkeys against small pox and divided them into two groups: one that had access to the cocktails and one to sugar water. (Both groups were also given food and regular water.)

Over the course of the 14-month study, the researchers found that the monkeys in the booze cage drank varying amounts—some got stewed all day, clocking blood ethanol concentrations higher than 0.08, while others kept their intake moderate, between 0.02 and 0.04. “Like humans,” lead author Ilhem Messaoudi said, “rhesus macaques showed highly variable drinking behavior.”

After drinking for seven months, the macaques received another booster shot, and their reactions were remarkably different. The immune systems of the bad monkeys that drank too much failed to produce the antibodies the body usually makes in response to a vaccine. The moderate drinkers, on the other hand, demonstrated an enhanced immune response—better even than the teetotaling control group. The researchers can’t yet fully explain the results, but one possible explanation is that modest amounts of alcohol stimulate the immune system.

Ilhem Messaoudi, the paper’s lead author, warns those who have a family history of alcohol abuse that “we are not recommending you go out and drink to improve your immune system.” And for the rest, the research comes with a disclaimer: Try not to get too carried away with celebrating because too much liquor will have the opposite effect, and no one wants to start the New Year with a hangover and a cold.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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