Alcohol and the pandemic

Dry January, a good measure against Covid?

In Luxembourg, the recommendations are to limit alcohol consumption to two glasses a day for men and one for women. With two to three days of abstinence per week. (Photo: Shutterstock)

In Luxembourg, the recommendations are to limit alcohol consumption to two glasses a day for men and one for women. With two to three days of abstinence per week. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Alcohol consumption is thought to weaken the immune system. The Sober Buddy Challenge, which proposes not to drink any alcohol during the whole month of January, is therefore timely, as the number of daily infections is breaking records in Luxembourg.

In other countries it is called Dry January while in Luxembourg, the campaign is called the Sober Buddy Challenge. The aim is the same: not to drink alcohol during the month of January, in order to limit the many effects that this substance can have on our health. But could alcohol consumption indirectly impact the immune system's response to covid? 

“In general, alcohol has a negative effect on health, on everything," admits Dr. Claude Besenius, director of the Useldange Therapeutic Centre (CTU), which rehabilitates people addicted to alcohol. “If you drink a lot, the amount of sleep is not good, and when you are tired, the immune system does not function as well.”

The result: both a greater risk of catching diseases and a lower risk of fighting them. Especially since "a lot of alcohol increases the risk of cancer or diabetes, which are vulnerability factors if you catch covid".

At what level of consumption can we talk about risk? “Alcohol always has an impact. That doesn't mean that it always has serious effects. But even if you drink a glass of wine in the evening to fall asleep more quickly, the quality of sleep is worse,” she replies. Secondly, “it's a question of scale. Drinking a lot every day greatly alters the quality of sleep every day, drinking only at the weekend has consequences for weekend sleep.”

The professional advises to follow public health recommendations. In Luxembourg, men are asked to limit themselves to two drinks a day and women to one, keeping two to three days alcohol-free per week.

Immune defences at stake

By respecting this, “we expect a negligible impact” of alcohol on health, adds Dr. Gérard Schockmel, consulting physician in infectious diseases at the Robert Schuman Hospitals. “Alcohol causes an increased risk of infection, this is true for all infections,” he explains, noting the role that the liver plays in the immune system. He also cites several studies that “suggest that ethanol may have a direct effect on the immune system”. On the subject of covid, “alcohol certainly does not have a favourable effect. Neutral at best, but the trend shows that it would be rather unfavourable.”

A World Health Organisation (WHO) document confirms that "alcohol consumption, especially when excessive, weakens the immune system and reduces the ability to cope with infectious diseases”. It also increases the risk of “acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), one of the most serious complications of covid-19”. Not to mention its impact on behaviour and the possible forgetting, after a few drinks, of barrier gestures. A report by Swedish researchers in 2021 recommends national policies to restrict, for example, the sale of alcohol in stadiums and on delivery, or its consumption in public places.

People who used to drink in bars have started to do so at home.
Dr Claude Besenius

Dr Claude Beseniusexecutive officerUseldange Therapeutic Centre (CTU)

“The solution is the vaccine,” adds Besenius. But what about alcohol consumption before or after the injection? “We haven't had any instructions on this, but in general, I would say that drinking on the day of a vaccine is not a very good idea. However, it's still better to get vaccinated while drunk than not.” Schockmel makes a similar point. For the WHO, “there is no evidence that drinking alcohol, before or after your vaccination, can have an adverse effect on the safety or efficacy of vaccines. However, drinking alcohol may increase the side effects.”

More risk of addiction

While alcohol does not have a negative effect on covid, the virus could also affect alcohol consumption. In Luxembourg, resident households spent €74.5m on spirits in shops in 2020, a year marked by the lockdown, compared with €73.7m in 2019, according to Statec. The wine budget, meanwhile, has risen from €90.1m to €99.9m. Only beer's budget decreased from €124.4m to €121m. In 2021, the spirits budget is still on the rise, at €75.3m. The wine budget is decreasing, but remains at a higher level than before the crisis: €96.3m. While the beer budget increased to €129.2m.

“During the pandemic, consumption habits changed, moving from bars and restaurants to the home,” explains the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in a publication, putting some of the rising figures into perspective. It notes, however, that “some of the problems associated with harmful alcohol consumption have been exacerbated,” such as violent behaviour.

Some people realise that they can have fun without alcohol.
Dr Claude Besenius

Dr Claude Beseniusexecutive officerUseldange Therapeutic Centre (CTU)

In Luxembourg, the CTU also notices more risks of addiction. “People who used to drink in bars have started to do so at home, with a greater risk of losing control, because there is no longer the pressure of the people around them," observes its director. “I don't have statistics, but in my experience we have had a lot of requests. People who had stopped drinking started again, others started because they started doing virtual aperitifs every day during the lockdown.”

A month of deprivation is (almost) always a good resolution

New year, new resolutions: does the Sober Buddy Challenge really help? Even if it's only for a month, this challenge “gives the body a break”, says Besenius. The effects are felt on “sleep, skin, weight, liver and blood pressure”. It also helps to limit consumption in the longer term. “Some people realise that they can have fun without alcohol, discover new non-alcoholic drinks that they like and that they can continue to drink in the evening, or learn to drink less.”

Besenius does not fear a risk of relapse in February for those who are not physically dependent. For those who are, going straight into the alcohol-free month would not be the best idea, unlike withdrawal with medical help.

In Luxembourg, the Sober Buddy Challenge is only in its second year. It is difficult to obtain precise statistics, but the Cancer Foundation, which organises it, questioned the participants following their first alcohol-free January in 2021. 48% had followed it to the end, while 47% had followed the challenge for at least 21 days, without going to the end. 85% said that the challenge would change their habits and that they were thinking of drinking less in the future.

This story was first published in French on Paperjam. It has been translated and edited for Delano.