Quite often when people want to improve their health and transform their body, their habitual alcohol intake is the first thing that hinders them.
Then the questions start to turn negative...
We’re not here to preach or try to turn you into a teetotaler.
However, it’s abundantly clear that most people drastically underestimate two key things:
1.The amount of alcohol they actually drink.
2. The affect alcohol has on their ability to get great results (i.e. build muscle) from exercise.
Before we get into the research, first, we need to talk about the basics...
Alcohol is formed when yeast ferments (breaks down without oxygen) the sugars in different food.
For example, consider the following alcoholic beverages and what they're derived from. Wine is made from the sugar in grapes, beer from the sugar in malted barley (a type of grain), cider from the sugar in apples, vodka from the sugar in potatoes, beets or other plants .
Alcohol is classed as a ‘sedative hypnotic’ drug , which means it acts to depress the central nervous system at high doses. At lower doses, alcohol can act as a stimulant , inducing feelings of euphoria and talkativeness, but drinking too much alcohol at one session can lead to drowsiness, respiratory depression (where breathing becomes slow, shallow or stops entirely), coma or even death .
In addition to its potentially lethal sedative effect at high doses; alcohol has effects on every organ in the body. The long-term impact to our organs depends on the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over time.
Alcohol requires no digestion and is absorbed directly into the blood stream from the stomach lining or the lining of the small intestine into the portal vein leading to the liver.
We have no storage mechanisms in place for alcohol so once it arrives in the liver, the enzymes alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase immediately go to work to metabolize it.
While I will spare you the details of the metabolic fate of alcohol’s by-products; what I will tell you is that these by-products cause increased fatty acid production and decreased oxidation (burning) of fat and fatty acids. This results in a buildup of these substances in the liver which often leads to elevated triglycerides, fatty liver disease, and even worse.
As if the metabolism of alcohol itself isn’t bad enough, it gets worse when we look at how alcohol affects the metabolism of energy substrates.
Controlled research studies have confirmed that the consumption of a single drink not only decreases the body’s ability to metabolize lipid (fat) but also carbohydrate.
It also results in a concurrent decrease in leptin levels, which is an important hormone responsible for regulating energy intake/expenditure. In effect; we overeat due to the dysregulation of this important hormone on our appetite
These effects may be due, in part, to the formation of acetate during the metabolism of the alcohol itself. The body’s oxidation of acetate takes precedence over lipid and/or carbohydrate oxidation.
In other words, your body is now in a disadvantaged state regarding the actual breakdown of the food you ingested. You are less able to process and utilize fats, carbohydrates and proteins. In addition, the body’s ability to utilize many vitamins is also impaired.
In summary; alcohol consumption effects metabolism in the following ways:
As mentioned above, alcohol affects our hormones. Let’s take a look at how much and to what extent it does this.
Hormones are chemical messengers that coordinate many functions within the body and control four major areas:
Hormones can be affected by many variables, such as food/drink, type and amount of exercise, stress levels, and sleep. For hormones to function properly; their amount and the timing of their release must be finely coordinated and target tissues must respond to them accurately.
Alcohol impairs the functions of hormone-releasing glands and target tissues which causes malfunction of the gonads and dysfunction of the parathyroid. Long-term alcohol abuse causes degeneration of liver cells, which results in carbohydrate disorders and impairs glucose metabolism.
In addition, alcohol stimulates hormones (aldosterone and glucocorticoids) which negatively affect skeletal muscle metabolism. Having an understanding of how hormone levels are affected from excessive alcohol consumption is important in comprehending how muscle growth could be impaired.
In fact, our hormonal profile determines whether muscle is built up (protein synthesis) or broken down (protein degradation).
The following are some key points we know from evidence-based research:
Something that’s often observed in chronic drinkers is a marked reduction in testosterone, concurrent with an increase in plasma estradiol . It’s in-fact plausible that the cardioprotective effects and reduced risk of osteoporosis associated with low dose alcohol consumption could in part be due to the elevation in estrogen, at least in women. This correlates well with the fact that we often see an increased risk of breast cancer among female drinkers too.
But why does this occur? In male rats, heavy alcohol consumption leads to increased aromatization of androgens in the liver . This is consistent in multiple animal models, going as far to consider high alcohol consumption to be a chemical form of castration . Aromatization is the conversion of androgen (such as testosterone) to estrogen (such as 17β-estradiol) by the enzyme aromatase.
Understandably, we are not rats, but it affects human alcoholics just the same; we see significantly increased FSH, LH, and estrogen levels, with a concurrent decrease in testosterone and progesterone including alcoholic patients without cirrhosis (scarring (fibrosis) of the liver caused by liver disease) . This problem is worsened in those with liver disorders because the liver is a prime site of aromatase expression.
In addition to alcohol’s increase in aromatase activity in the liver; it also causes a decrease in IGF-1 bioavaibility due to altered liver function. This may contribute to the development of hypogonadism (low testosterone) as IGF-1 is known to stimulate testosterone synthesis in animal models .
Essentially what’s occurring is alcohol-induced hypogonadism. But the question is, in what dose? How much alcohol is bad?
Most research to date suggests that it’s moderate-to-high consumption that is problematic. The recommendation of <14 units per week for men probably holds quite true for those who want to maintain optimal health. Refer to the guide below to find how many units are in your favorite drink.
Don’t forget the overall general negative health effects of alcohol too, including increased liver strain. Keep to the advice and stick to less than 14 units a week. Don’t binge either, binge drinking can be just as bad, if not more, harmful to your health.
In addition to alcohol’s effect on our metabolism and hormones; it also effects skeletal muscle repair and protein synthesis. Whether it is your calf, bicep or heart, drinking alcohol negatively affects all muscle tissue.
Interestingly, this effect is seen even when alcohol is not directly present in the blood stream.
A recent study demonstrated that “elevation of alcohol within the central nervous system (CNS)” is capable of decreasing protein synthesis and increasing protein degradation within muscle in in the absence of alcohol in the general circulation. This may account for part of the inhibitory effect of alcohol on muscle protein homeostasis .
Below are some key points from research in reference to how alcohol influences muscle growth and protein synthesis:
Furthermore, recent research by Dr. Lang and colleagues from Penn State University shows alcohol consumption leads to numerous morphological, biochemical and functional changes in skeletal and cardiac muscle, and that even moderate drinking decreases muscle protein synthesis by 20% .
These scientists reviewed a series of studies showing that alcohol interferes with the construction and folding of specific proteins and also blocks the action of the powerful anabolic hormone IGF-1. As mentioned above, IGF-1 is important if you want to see results from your efforts in the gym .
If we happen to have alcohol in or around our intense training session, we actually allow our body to remain in a catabolic (breakdown) state even longer – no recovery, restoration, regeneration or growth.
Since acute alcohol consumption blunts the anabolic response of amino acids; in effect, you just busted your butt in gym and threw away any chance of having it do any good for you.
Another warning: too much alcohol can adversely affect the circadian rhythm, which is critically important to every aspect of your health.
In addition, alcohol can affect the quality of our sleep. As we know, sleep is crucial in order to optimize our hormones, recovery, muscle growth and overall health.
The relationship between alcohol and sleep has been studied for quite a long time , yet many aspects of this relationship are still unknown. Research has shown sleepers who drink large amounts of alcohol before going to bed are often prone to delayed sleep onset, meaning they need more time to fall asleep.
As liver enzymes metabolize the alcohol during their night and the blood alcohol level decreases, these individuals are also more likely to experience sleep disruptions and decreases in sleep quality.
Drinking alcohol before bed can add to the suppression of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep during the first two cycles. Since alcohol is a sedative, sleep onset is often shorter for drinkers and some fall into deep sleep rather quickly. As the night progresses, this can create an imbalance between slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, resulting in less of the latter and more of the former. This decreases overall sleep quality, which can result in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.
Of course, after reading this, many people want to know how much alcohol they can have and still make progress. I totally understand this and the fact that alcohol is always around us and a part of many social events we attend.
There are some really negative effects from the consumption of alcohol on muscle recovery and body composition results from exercise.
It’s very clear that binge drinking on the weekends can easily erase the good work you’ve done in the gym throughout the week. It also appears that more than a couple drinks will have a negative impact on muscle recovery and regeneration.
So if you’re just starting your body transformation and/or you come from a history of “over-indulgence” then give yourself a fighting chance.
It might be a really good idea to ditch the booze for a while as you allow yourself to get used to frequent exercise, getting more sleep, and eating healthier. As the results come, it might be okay to reward yourself occasionally.
Most importantly, as you get better at this you will learn where, how much, and when alcohol may fit into your new high-performance lifestyle.
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