Alcohol is a heavily debated topic within the fitness and bodybuilding community. Many bodybuilders avoid drinking year round, yet certain individuals seem to have a few drinks weekly and still look great year round.
The question becomes does alcohol limit your workout progress, is there a threshold where the odd drink per week is OK, or, are you best to avoid it altogether if you want to MAXIMIZE your physique and performance.
ALCOHOL PHYSIOLOGY BASICS
Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and is classed as a toxin within the body; due to its chemical nature, the body is unable to digest and metabolize it like normal food. When you digest alcohol, your body instantly stops any typical metabolic processes, such as building new proteins or breaking down food for fuel. This is important to remember, as the science of alcohol metabolism helps explain the infamous beer belly.
ALCOHOL AND FAT METABOLISM
As mentioned, alcohol is classed as a toxin, meaning the body instantly sidelines its regular functions in order to prioritize processing any alcohol intake. One key part of alcohol metabolism explains why you’re still fighting with the bars for that six pack. During the breakdown of Ethanol (alcohol), acetyl-CoA is created. This specific enzyme plays a key role in FAT METABOLISM, creating new fatty acid molecules and eventually, fat storage (Bullock et al., 2010).
To further the fat storage cascade, another enzyme known as NADH increases with alcohol intake, this signals to the body that there’s an abundance of available energy or calories. The next part is fairly obvious, with the body’s reaction being to increase fat formation and fat storage! (Bullock et al., 2010)
The bad news continues, along with alcohol being stored as fat, it may actually increase fat storage from the regular, everyday foods you are eating!
HOW ALCOHOL CONVERTS FOOD INTO FAT!
Research by Shelmet et al. (1998) demonstrated how the addition of alcohol blunts normal fat oxidation or use. They provided participants with the equivalent of two drinks and found it reduced fat oxidation (e.g. fat burning) by a whopping 87%! As discussed, the body priorities addressing the toxic alcohol, trying to burn or excrete it as fast as possible, which BLUNTS normal fat and carbohydrate metabolism. In fact, these researchers found the fat oxidation depression lasted for a further 4 hours, bad news for those wishing to keep the fat off.
Following this, they investigated how the combination of alcohol and carbohydrates affected fat metabolism. This is of particular importance as most people combine alcohol with sugary drinks and high carb / high fat meals, such as pizza or burger & fries. If you’re heading out this weekend it’s time to stop reading, as they found that the combination of alcohol and carbohydrates totally blunted fat oxidation / burn!
ALCOHOL AND MUSCLE GROWTH
If additional fat gain from Alcohol wasn’t enough to stop you this weekend, alcohol also has a massive effect on your muscle building capacity. So if your goal is the “Dadbod”, combing alcohol and food is a perfect regime, helping you gain fat and blunt muscle growth!
As you may know already, Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is the primary mechanism for building new protein (muscle). When we train or eat a high quality protein based meal, MPS increases and helps you build new, additional proteins (muscle fibers). In normal conditions, this continues like clockwork, you eat protein 3 – 6 times a day and train hard, over the years you grow into your dream body, slowly packing on the pounds every year (Lang et al., 2009).
In comes alcohol, to destroy all your hard work at the gym. Research has shown alcohol intake inhibits mTOR and Muscle Protein Synthesis, meaning not only will it blunt future growth, it may actually impair recovery and progress, making you weaker and smaller in the long run. Now of course, 2 drinks a week wouldn’t have this impact; however regular drinking may stop you recovering and progressing from the workout (Lang et al., 2009).
Research also found that the negative impact occurs mainly in Type 2 muscle fibers, which are the key fibers for lifting weights, with type 1 fibers being for long, endurance activities. In other words, if you train at the gym and then go out drinking, say goodbye to the positive adaptations you should have earnt from that gym session – time to take up running!
ALCOHOL ON NET PROTEIN BALANCE
Not only does alcohol impede new protein/muscle growth and recovery by blunting protein synthesis, it also affects your total net protein balance. The net protein balance describes a basic balance between being anabolic (muscle growth!) and catabolic (muscle breakdown), e.g. if you have a positive protein balance you are anabolic, if you have a negative protein balance, you are more likely catabolic.
ALCOHOL & HORMONES
The final nail in the coffin is the negative impact Alcohol has on your key anabolic hormones. Research has shown alcohol consumption can reduce Growth Hormone (important for fat loss and muscle growth) and Luteinizing hormone, which plays a key role in Testosterone production and regulation! Alcohol can also increase cortisol, which may increase muscle protein breakdown and affect recovery.
One study found five glasses of beer lowered testosterone in the short term, combined with its longer term effects on Luteinizing hormone, this may noticeably decrease testosterone levels, just another reason why regular alcohol consumption is not recommended.
FINDING A BALANCE
While regular or high alcohol consumption is certainly detrimental, like all things, it may be possible to create a balance and still drink in moderation. This obviously depends on your current position, aspiration and goals. If you’re a pro bodybuilder or prepping for a show, chances are alcohol will only slow progress down and should be avoided. However, if you’re just a fitness fan and recreational bodybuilder, 1-2 glasses a couple of nights per week could be OK, especially if you plan it into your daily food, macro and calorie intake.
So, here’s what to do. If you are wanting to have 1 – 2 drinks when socialising, it’s important to pick smart drinks with a lower calorie content, these may include spirits with tonic water, diet sodas or HYDRA-KAGED (more on this below!). Wine is another good choice, as, although it’s slightly higher in calories, it does have some beneficial antioxidants and contains a health promoting nutrient called resveratrol.
If you are drinking larger amounts, e.g. for a birthday or special celebration, one method for damage limitation would be to limit food intake to only high protein, lower carb / fat foods, such as meat and vegetables. It may also be wise to plan the day off and the day after a rest day; due to the points discussed above, combined with lack of sleep, your recovery and growth capacity will be severely compromised.
RECOVERY – OUTSMART THAT HANGOVER
The dreaded hangover is caused by a multitude of factors, including dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, lack of sleep, loud noise, changes to your circadian rhythm and the toxins from the alcohol itself.
While it may be impossible to completely cure your hangover, there are a few bio hacks you can use to improve the symptoms. Firstly, a big priority is maintaining hydration, detoxing and increasing electrolyte levels. You can achieve this by mixing your spirits with some HYDRA-CHARGE and water, which will hydrate AND maintain electrolyte balance while simultaneously helping to detox and manage the toxins thanks to its high antioxidant content. Follow this plan along with a balanced meal, containing lots of vegetables and some fresh air to maximise the recovery process.
In summary, like with most detrimental foods or lifestyle decisions, moderation is absolutely key. For the average recreational bodybuilder, what you do consistently 95% of the time is what will determine your long term success and physique! Enjoy in moderation and ensure your on track to achieve your goals!
Urbano-Marquez, A., Estruch, R., Navarro-Lopez, F., Grau, J. M., Mont, L., & Rubin, E. (1989). The effects of alcoholism on skeletal and cardiac muscle. New England Journal of Medicine, 320(7), 409-415.
Rimm, E. B., Klatsky, A., Grobbee, D., & Stampfer, M. J. (1996). Review of moderate alcohol consumption and reduced risk of coronary heart disease: is the effect due to beer, wine, or spirits? BMJ, 312(7033), 731-736.
Bullock, C. (2010). The Biochemistry of Alcohol Metabolism—A Brief Review. Biochemical Education, 18(2), 62-66.
Shelmet, J.J., Reichard, G.A., Skutches, C.L., Hoeldtke, R.D., Owen, O.E. and Boden, G. (1998). Ethanol Causes Acute Inhibition of Carbohydrate, Fat, and Protein Oxidation and Insulin Resistance. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 81(4), 1137-1145.
Cederbaum, A. (2012). Alcohol Metabolism. Journal of Clinical Liver Disease, 16(4), 667-685.
Suter, P.M., Schutz, Y. & Jequier, E. (1992). The Effect of Ethanol on Fat Storage in Healthy Subjects. New England Journal of Medicine, 326(15), 983-987.
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. Nutr Metab (Lond), 6(1), 4.