Eggnog for Christmas…champagne for New Year’s…and cocktails all around: If ever there was a season for over boozing it’s the holidays. Of course, the same time frame is fraught with seasonal colds. Could there be a connection? New animal research suggests binge drinking may lower immunity overall — particularly increasing vulnerability to foodborne bacteria.

study published in Toxicological Sciences examined how alcohol affected the ability to fight off bacterial infection over a 72-hour period.Compared with those drinking water, mice on the equivalent of the holiday-cocktail-party-circuit had stomach bacterial counts that were 750% higher at 8 hours, and 2,200% higher at 24 hours.Why? Alcohol wreaked havoc on two types of immune cells, cytokines and macrophages. Alcohol cut the number of cytokines — thus increasing inflammation, while reducing the bacteria-busting effectiveness of macrophages by 83%. Thus, alcohol compromises overall immunity, increasing risk of infection, even death.

While more research is needed to confirm how alcohol affects the human immune system, it’s fair to say too much of it can harm health in multiple ways.Binge drinking leads to bigger waistlines, lasting brain damage, disruptive heart rhythms, and higher stroke risk. Even moderate drinking raises breast cancer risk for women. Pace yourself with non-alcoholic drinks, such as fake beer, which may have its own immunity benefits. And if you do find you’ve overindulged, help restore your body’s balance with bananas, containing many of the nutrients needed to combat hangover symptoms.

Bonus: Eat more asparagus to counter alcohol’s effects. A lab study in the Journal of Food Science found that asparagus extract reduced liver toxicity by 42%.

Published December 1, 2011