“How do you wind down from a long day?”
Read, go for a walk, exercise, eat a pint of ice cream, drink a glass of wine.
These are all things we do as a society to “take the edge off”. To date, I’ve written about everything but the wine: sugar, brain, steps and too many articles about exercise to choose from!
So what’s the story about alcohol consumption and fitness? Green light or red light?
Recently, I wrote of the holidays, “…alcohol and sugar have a compounding effect on each other and spike insulin in the blood stream leading to fat storage, plummeting energy levels and the vicious cycle of craving more.” But, like many things we consume, the story doesn’t stop at “alcohol is bad” or “alcohol is good”. Except sugar. Added sugar is always bad.
This is not a comprehensive article, by any means. There is still much we need to learn and discuss with regard to alcohol and the fitness world. However there are some definitive things you should know.
So here are the 4 effects to consider when it comes to alcohol and your fitness goals.
1. Alcohol stops fat metabolism
If I had to boil down what we know about metabolic science into one cohesive statement, it would be this:
“Burning fat is always good. Not burning fat is always bad.”
When the body metabolizes ethanol, (what we mean by “alcohol”) it breaks it down first into acetylaldehyde, then to acetyl-CoA, which is a compound that the body can use to make ATP (the universal sources of fuel).
Since the body flags ethanol and acetylaldehyde as toxic, these organic reactions take precedence over all others, thereby shutting down the metabolism of other fuel avenues.
That is, after you drink alcohol, your body diverts all of it’s resources to getting it out of your system so it stops processing other forms of energy, storing them for later.
A recent study suggests that it’s not alcohol itself that makes the waistline grow, but the food eaten after drinking that ends up on your love handles. As you can imagine, the effect of this metabolic change gets even heavier with sugary, high-calorie concoctions.[i]
Next time you have a drink, consider that everything you eat for the following hour will likely end up being stored, not burned.
2. Alcohol inhibits nutrient absorption
Exercise is a stress. It’s a good stress, but a stress nonetheless. And the body needs the ability to recover from stress if you are going to reap the benefits.
Do you know what recovery requires? Nutrients. Your body needs nutrients to adapt to a good exercise program.
Alcohol metabolism inhibits nutrient absorption so that what you are eating doesn’t necessarily make it to the tissues and organs that need to recover.[ii]
Without getting deeply technical, if you are an exercise enthusiast (3 or more sessions weekly) AND moderate alcohol consumer, (1-2drinks daily for men, 1 drink daily for women) you should be bolstering your recovery with AT LEAST a quality multivitamin, fish oil, and BCAA’s on the days that you choose to have a drink. If you’re going to give your body an obstacle to recovery, make sure you support it’s struggle!
If you don’t provide your body support for this effect, your alcohol could limit the positive effects of your exercise habits on your goals.
3. Alcohol dysregulates hormones
Hormones are a buzzword in modern-day fitness theory. And for good reason.
Too much insulin makes you fat. Too little testosterone destroys confidence, muscle and libido. Too much cortisol causes athlerosclerosis. Too little estrogen causes depression and mood swings.
This list goes on and on. In many ways our health, fitness, perceived well-being, energy and body composition are a product of the natural regulatory response of hormones to our internal and external environment.
But what about alcohol?
Moderate to high levels of drinking (10 or more drinks per week for men, 7 or more for women) lowers testosterone[iii], increases estrogen[iv] and elevates cortisol (through poor sleeping patterns)[v]. These changes will increase fat mass, decrease muscle mass, increase muscle soreness, and decrease your energy levels, all while rendering you more susceptible to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and overall, feeling like garbage.
Some other hormone-related facts, just for fun:
Rats who were fed 5% of their diet in ethanol saw a 50% reduction in the mass of their male parts[vi] (equivalent to 1.5 shots of hard alcohol daily if you consume 2000 kcal/day).
Hops (an important brewing ingredient in beer) metabolize into estrogenic compounds and therefore may be the worst disruptor to both male and female hormone systems (I’m talking to you, IPA drinkers!).[vii]
Sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which is responsible for rendering your sex hormones essentially inert, and prolactin (the “nurturing hormone” that inspires mothers to be awesome but also creates and exacerbates Dad Bod) are elevated by moderate alcohol consumption and remain elevated for up to 48 hours later. [viii]
Do your hormones a favor and stay away from the moderate to heavy drinking category!
4. Alcohol may improve immunity, reduce cardiovascular disease, increase life span, and stave of alzheimers
You didn’t think I was going to be ALL gloom and doom, did you?
Low to moderate alcohol consumption (5-8 drinks per week for men, 2-6 drinks per week for women) actually seems to have several positive effects on fitness.
Low to moderate alcohol consumption (particularly red wine) improves immunity and reduces cardiovascular disease (presumably due to high levels of antioxidants) through a reduction in inflammation and elimination of free radicals.[ix] And, since cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the developed world, the increased life span finding follows!
Immune system and heart aside, alcohol seems to be beneficial for the mind in small doses. The manageable stress placed on the brain by low to moderate consumption has a similar effect as the stress of exercise on the brain. Low to moderate drinkers are 25% less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimers, according to a study that followed 365,000 for over 20 years![x]
It’s important to note that these benefits are not a reason I would advocate non-drinkers to start today. But rather a reason to encourage those who do consume alcohol to be conscious of their amounts so that it is a support, rather than a hindrance, in their fitness journey!
So there you have it. Many questions still exist worth being answered. But for now, you have the definitive pros and cons list.
If you do enjoy a drink regularly, be aware of the lowered fat metabolism, nutrient malabsorption and hormone dysregulation associated with being in the “Moderate to Heavy” category while celebrating the benefits of being in the “Light to Moderate” category.
And if you don’t drink alcohol on your journey, you can disregard this whole article. Or pass it on to someone you know that needs to read it!
See you on the fitness floor.
Francis A. Tayie, Garret L. Beck. . (2016) Alcoholic beverage consumption contributes to caloric and moisture intakes and body weight status. Nutrition 32:7-8, 799-805.
[ii] Relationships Between Nutrition, Alcohol Use, and Liver Disease.Charles S. Lieber, M.D., M.A.C.P. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. September 29, 2004. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-3/220-231.htm
[iii] Heikkonen, E., Ylikahri, R., Roine, R., Välimäki, M., Härkönen, M. and Salaspuro, M. (1996), The Combined Effect of Alcohol and Physical Exercise on Serum Testosterone, Luteinizing Hormone, and Cortisol in Males. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 20: 711–716. doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.1996.tb01676.x
[iv] Alcoholic Beverages as a source of estrogens. Judith S. Gavaler, PhD. Vol 22, No.3. 1998. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-3/220.pdf
[v] Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use. Timothy Roehrs, PhD. National Institute on Abuse and Alcoholism. 2002. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm
DAVID H. VAN THIEL, JUDITH S. GAVALER, CHARLES F. COBB, RICHARD J. SHERINS, and ROGER LESTER
Endocrinology 1979 105:4, 888-895
[vii] The Endocrine Activities of 8-Prenylnaringenin and Related Hop (Humulus lupulus L.) Flavonoids
R. Milligan, J. C. Kalita, V. Pocock, V. Van De Kauter, J. F. Stevens, M. L. Deinzer, H. Rong, and D. De Keukeleire