| Nerding Out on Alcohol

Author / Hunter Waldman

7 - 15 minutes read

Ask any Power Athlete the mantra when it comes to the Devil’s Brew and you’ll be met with a simple phrase – Don’t Be Weird! 

Yep: light to moderate alcohol consumption can be part of any athlete’s diet regimen when accounted for in the overall caloric load for the day, as outlined in a previous blog by Nutrition Ninja, Rob Exline, titled Keeping Alcohol on Track. For those of you who have not read it yet, do it now.,

But for those of you wanting to take Alcohol down the rabbit hole and dig into some of what the science has to say about its impact on performance, fat loss, or muscle growth, then continue reading. As a note, I personally don’t drink alcohol and I find that important to immediately point out as I know people use alcohol as a coping mechanism for “unwinding” from a stressful day. Most of you know it is probably not the healthiest beverage, but you’d argue that life is short. I get it. It’s a choice I made based on a family history of heavy drinkers. With this said, I think not drinking (and doing a little science) allows me to objectively lay out exactly how alcohol works in the body without any biases you should be concerned about.  

Alcohol and Metabolism

When most people think of metabolism, they strictly think of fat burning. While this is part of the metabolic equation, technically metabolism encompasses both the breaking down of substrates and building up of others. But let’s keep the focus on strictly fat burning. You all know that if you want to lose fat, caloric expenditure will need to be greater than caloric intake. As a result, the body will begin metabolizing excess stored fatty acids and to a lesser degree, stored glycogen. But alcohol consumption can halt this process to a fairly significant degree. How so? Well remember in Rob’s blog, he outlined that alcohol is a calorically dense substrate (providing 7 kcals per gram and only second behind dietary fat). But alcohol is also very different from the other macronutrients. Unlike dietary fat or carbohydrates, alcohol must be immediately metabolized since the body has no direct way of storing alcohol and this is where the problem exists.

Following alcohol consumption, the metabolism of both carbohydrates and stored fat is halted until all of that alcohol is eliminated. This is important to understand. Alcohol is such a concern to the body (and liver), that the body shifts ALL attention to this one substrate when it enters the body. For those seriously interested in fat loss and optimizing body composition, this means that those goals are going to have to be delayed until later, pending how much alcohol you consumed. You start stacking multiple beverages in a single night and possibly repeat this on multiple nights during a weekday and you get the picture.

Alcohol Will Not Give You Wings…

That’s right. Unlike Red Bull’s famous slogan, there is nothing performance enhancing about alcohol consumption. Let’s take a trip down memory lane real quick – I remember playing college football with a group of young men that would turn up the night before our 5 AM conditioning sessions. These guys would party early into the morning before arriving for our dreaded gasser drills. Let me just say that you could smell the alcohol sweating from the pores before the warm-up was done. Performance didn’t fare much better for these guys. So, what was happening internally that these young men were unaware of?

Diuretic – yep, alcohol although a liquid does not hydrate. In fact, it does the opposite and dehydrates the consumer by inhibiting anti-diuretic hormone (ADH). See, ADH actually helps the body preserve water during exercise and training. If ADH is inhibited though, that water is excreted and the athlete becomes dehydrated quickly as they are losing water at a faster pace than the athlete who didn’t drink the night before. And research is clear that a mere ~2% decrease in bodyweight from dehydration has some serious negative effects on all aspects of performance.

Recovery and Muscle Growth – while nutrient timing may or may not be as important as we once thought, I would still argue that the nutrients themselves which we put into our body around the peri-workout window is largely important. It’s not uncommon for some athlete’s to consume alcohol following an intense workout as a way to wind down. I mean, if you are going to drink your calories, post-workout would be the best time to do so…right? While the literature doesn’t have a great deal of work in this area, there are a few cool studies which have examined this research question:

–          Lang et al. (2009) found that alcohol consumption reduced mTOR activation post-workout and thus, reduced protein synthesis (1).

–          Barnes et al. (2009) found that alcohol consumption made the muscle damaging effects of resistance training and ultimately, resulted in about a ~10% reduction in force output the next training session (2).

–          Vila et al. (2001) showed that in those who drink alcohol regularly, it appears that the training stimulus goes towards preserving muscle quality rather than improving muscle quality. In other words, your training is simply to negate the negative effects of drinking whereas those who do not drink at all, reap the positive benefits of training (3).

Hormones – I’ve always thought that the old-school bodybuilders were ahead of their time in optimizing fat loss and building muscle. Time under tension. Smaller and more frequent protein feedings through the day. Mixing creatine with grape juice. Another catchy little phrase I would hear was “No alcohol when bulking, even dirty bulking”. These men and women were on to something here. Turns out, alcohol is pretty effective at killing your testosterone production (4). Yep, that really anabolic hormone in men and women that you want to maximize for muscle and metabolic health is totally killed off by alcohol consumption. While the exact mechanisms are not fully outlined yet, it appears that alcohol may either act directly on the testes in men or impair some aspect of the sex-hormone signaling cascade which begins with the pituitary gland.

So, there we have it. Overall, it’s clear that if the goal is to maximize muscle growth, fat loss, or performance, alcohol is going to be the Hydra in your life. While focused on one head, there will be eight other aspects of alcohol you’ve not considered and all working together to hamper your goals and progress.

So again, where does this leave us in a world where alcohol is a part of daily life? I would say to remember that every choice has a subsequent response. Are your goals to maximize fat loss, muscle growth, or performance (key word maximize)? It’s tough to make the argument that alcohol fits into this plan. Okay, so maybe not maximize but still make progress. What about then? I would say for sure, but be aware that it’ll come slower than if alcohol was eliminated completely.

And a word on the phrase – Don’t Be Weird. If you find yourself at a work event, a birthday party, or among friends on a Friday night then yeah, don’t be that guy or girl if you don’t have to be. You’ve put in the hard work and this is where our 80/20 or 90/10 rule comes in. But check yourself and if you are “not being weird” every other night then it might be time to do some reassessing. And you can hit up a Power Athlete Nutrition Ninja or follow one of the Protocols to help you dial in those macros, just head over to Nutrition now.

References:

1. Lang, C. H., Pruznak, A. M., Nystrom, G. J., & Vary, T. C. (2009). Alcohol-induced decrease in muscle protein synthesis associated with increased binding of mTOR and raptor: Comparable effects in young and mature rats. Nutrition & Metabolism. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-6-4

2. Barnes, M. J., Mündel, T., & Stannard, S. R. (2009). Post-exercise alcohol ingestion exacerbates eccentric-exercise induced losses in performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 108(5), 1009-1014. doi:10.1007/s00421-009-1311-3

3. Vila, L., Ferrando, A., Voces, J., Oliveira, C. C., Prieto, J., & Alvarez, A. (2001). Effect of chronic ethanol ingestion and exercise training on skeletal muscle in rat. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 64(1), 27-33. doi:10.1016/s0376-8716(00)00223-4

4. Gordon, G. G., Altman, K., Southren, A. L., Rubin, E., & Lieber, C. S. (1976). Effect of Alcohol (Ethanol) Administration on Sex-Hormone Metabolism in Normal Men. New England Journal of Medicine, 295(15), 793-797. doi:10.1056/nejm197610072951501

Related Content

Nutrition: Power Athlete Nutrition Coaching

Blog: Keeping Alcohol on Track

Podcast: Ep 597 – Alcohol Killing Your Leaning Buzz?

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AUTHOR

Hunter Waldman

Hunter Waldman is a former DII collegiate linebacker who found his passion in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology during his undergraduate years. After working as a Strength and Conditioning coach/personal trainer for several years, Hunter pursued his doctorate in Exercise Physiology while also serving as a Sweat Scientist for the Gatorade Sport Science Institute (GSSI) in Florida. Hunter is now a Professor of Exercise Science at the University of North Alabama, Researcher, Director of the Exercise Biochemistry Laboratory, and Power Athlete Block-1 Coach. Hunter's research area is in Nutrition and Metabolic Health/Performance, where his lab is attempting to understand how to increase cell stress resiliency via nutrition, supplements, and exercise.

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