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Detrimental Effects of Alcohol to Muscle Fibers & Athletic Performance

Alcohol’s Negative Effects on Athletic Performance, Plus Steps to Maximize Recovery!

Athletic performanceWe all know that excess alcohol consumption does not support our health. But how much is “too much” when it comes to our athletic performance and recovery? Sadly, some studies have shown that even ‘low’ to ‘moderate’ consumption of alcohol can negatively affect our exercise performance in even more ways than you might anticipate. That being said, if you love your pinot Grigio or vodka sodas and are loathe to give them up altogether, there are steps that you can take to not only cushion the blow of the next day’s hangover but to mitigate most of the detrimental effects of alcohol on your health, strength, and ability to perform.

You aren’t recovering? Alcohol may be to blame!

Alcohol is high in carbohydrates and can be chock-full of essential nutrients, depending on the type of drink, so some people may consider alcohol to be a reasonable choice for a post- (or pre-) workout supplement. This belief is, in a word, incorrect.

Studies have shown that alcohol impedes exercise recovery in multiple ways. First of all, alcohol interferes with sleep. Many people use alcohol as a way of relaxing or unwinding from a tough day.  And, yes, alcohol does in the short-term have a ‘soothing’ effect on our brains; but don’t be fooled! Alcohol lulls us into a false sense of relaxation, helps us to fall asleep, and then, at 3 am in the morning, wakes us up–and keeps us up–for seemingly no reason. Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience here. Alcohol has been found to prevent the restorative sleep cycles, with total time spent in the REM stages of sleep significantly reduced.

Alcohol Weakens our Muscles

Alcohol also interferes with muscle growth. The secretion and coordination of particular hormones are necessary for muscle hypertrophy, and one major review found that ethanol can have disruptive effects on this process. This occurs in multiple ways: protein synthesis is disrupted as alcohol impairs the signalling of IGF-1, which is responsible for transcribing the genes essential for muscle building and engaging our most responsive hypertrophic Type-II muscle fibres.

Alcohol also has been shown to lower our testosterone levels and increase our cortisol–which is the exact opposite of what we want for muscle growth. This testosterone depletion caused by alcohol which leads to disrupted protein synthesis is often thought to be the main cause of the muscular atrophy observed in chronic alcoholics. Although, if you’re a woman, ethanol’s testosterone-lowering effect is not so pronounced and, in some studies, testosterone has actually increased in women after consuming alcohol. So, score?

Alcohol Makes You Cold–and Then Hot

Another reason that we have trouble sleeping after drinking is that alcohol compromises  our body’s temperature. One study found that alcohol throws into disarray our circadian temperature system; once we go to bed after drinking (and we draw nearer and nearer to the inevitable hangover) our core temperature will increase, and, as you may or may not know, our bodies need to be in a very specific temperature range in order for us to sleep properly (this is why people have a hard time sleeping on hot summer nights and air conditioning is a sound investment, in my opinion). The same study found that alcohol actually decreases body temperature during the day. What does this mean for your athletic performance? Well, not only do you have night sweats, but your body will struggle to modulate your temperature while you’re working out. According to Alcohol.org, you will be more likely to suffer hypothermia if you’re exercising in the cold and, in the heat, you’re more likely to feel dizzy and/or nauseated.

Alcohol makes you Clumsy

This will come as a surprise to no one: alcohol makes you uncoordinated. Furthermore, your motor skills, reaction time, judgment, and balance will all be affected, resulting in not only sub-par athletic performance, but a greater risk for injuries. And, in case you were wondering, mixing alcohol with your sports drink will not protect your motor skills or balance, as one study has demonstrated.

Alcohol Dehydrates you

Another obvious pitfall of drinking with exercise: dehydration. Yep, alcohol is a diuretic (i.e. makes you pee a lot) and while this is inconvenient at the best of times, when you’re exercising, being dehydrated can mean serious health consequences, such as heat stroke.

Alcohol Compromises your Heart

One of the most pressing threats that alcohol consumption poses to our health is its effect on our cardiovascular system. Most people have experienced after a night of heavy drinking that uncomfortable, somewhat-terrifying sensation of one’s heart rhythm having altered. You’re not crazy. Studies have found that alcohol increases one’s heart rate and that the more alcohol one drinks, the more ‘intense’ the tachycardia experience. Chronic excessive drinking, as well, can result in many terrifying heart conditions, such as stroke, heart failure, and muscle weakness and atrophy; and studies have shown these effects to be particularly evident in women. Most terrifyingly, these conditions can present no prior symptoms. Yikes!

What can we do?

Are there any steps that we can take to mitigate the undesirable effects of alcohol upon our athletic performance, our ‘gains’, and our overall health? Besides abstaining altogether, there are steps that you can take before, during, and after drinking to ‘cushion’ the blow of a night (or day) of indulgence.

Before:

  • Eat a nutritionally-dense meal. The vitamins and minerals you consume in your pre-party meal can help to balance the vitamins and minerals that are often lost through alcohol consumption.
  • Make sure to include salt in your meal.
  • ‘Pad’ your sleep. If you know that you’re going to be drinking, try and get more sleep the night before and get more sleep afterwards. Just a half an hour more both nights will help.
  • Drink water. Before, during, after. Being well-hydrated is the key to a successful alcohol experience!

During:

  • Consider sticking to ‘clear’ alcohol. Studies have found that dark alcohols tend to have more congeners, which can result in more unpleasant hangover symptoms.
  • Drink water! Try matching or exceeding the volume you consume in alcohol with the volume you consume in water. If you’re drinking in the heat and sun, hydration is even more important.
  • Slow down and practice moderation. Drinking should not be a competition–unless the prize is a deadly hangover the next day.

After:

  • Sleep in!
  • Drink water!
  • Eat a nutritionally dense meal, aka a hearty breakfast. This will help to give you energy and replace many of the nutrients that you lost the night before.
  • Take a painkiller. Studies have shown that inflammation is a primary cause of many of our hangover symptoms, so an ibuprofen tablet may help to blunt the edges of the post-party comedown.

In conclusion, if you are driven to improve your performance and optimize recovery, it might be best to abstain from alcohol altogether. But it can be difficult to avoid alcohol all the time–after all, athletes want to have fun too! So, if you must drink, drink smart and take care of your body because it’s the only one you got!

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.

Works Cited

Bendsten, P., Jones, A. W., & Helander, A. (1998). Urinary excretion of methanol and 5-hydroxytryptophol as biochemical markers of recent drinking in the Hangover state. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 33(4), 431-438. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.alcalc.a008415

Benson, S., & Scholey, A. (2014). Effects of alcohol and energy drink on mood and subjective intoxication: A double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 29(4), 360-369. doi:10.1002/hup.2414

Bianco, A., Thomas, E., Pomara, F., Tabacchi, G., Karsten, B., Paoli, A., & Palma, A. (2014). Retraction: Alcohol consumption and hormonal alterations related to muscle hypertrophy: A review. Nutrition & Metabolism, 11(1), 43. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-11-43

Claire Siekaniec, M. (2017, June 01). The effects of alcohol on athletic performance. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/nsca-coach/the-effects-of-alcohol-on-athletic-performance2/

Danel, T., Libersa, C., & Touitou, Y. (2001). The effect of alcohol consumption on the circadian control of human core body temperature is time dependent. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 281(1). doi:10.1152/ajpregu.2001.281.1.r52

Devaney, M., Graham, D., & Greeley, J. (2003). Circadian variation of the acute and delayed response to alcohol: Investigation of core body temperature variations in humans. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 75(4), 881-887. doi:10.1016/s0091-3057(03)00170-9

Ebrahim, I. O., Shapiro, C. M., Williams, A. J., & Fenwick, P. B. (2013). Alcohol and sleep i: Effects on normal sleep. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37(4). doi:10.1111/acer.12006

Night sweats and alcohol – hot flashes from alcohol consumption. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://www.alcohol.org/effects/warm-flushed-skin/

Rubin, E. (1980). Effects of alcohol on cardiac and skeletal muscle. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 6(1-2), 3. doi:10.1016/0376-8716(80)90331-2

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