If you’ve been looking for information about alcohol consumption and health, you may have found a lot of conflicting information. Some people (and even a study) have claimed that moderate amounts of alcohol have health benefits while others have said that any alcohol is harmful. Today we want to break down what happens when you drink, how alcohol and food interact, and if you can hit your fitness goals while drinking.
What Happens When You Consume Alcohol
Yes, alcohol can have detrimental effects on the health of your brain and body.
Alcohol is water and fat soluble so it can pass the blood brain barrier and has a direct effect on our cells. This is one reason it’s so damaging. Ethanol is toxic and produces damage to our cells. The body converts ethanol to a toxin known as acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde enters the blood and can damage the cell membranes. If your body isn’t fast enough at removing this toxin, more and more acetaldehyde will build up in your body and your liver (where this whole reaction takes place) will be damaged. The more frequent you drink over long periods of time, the more risk you have for liver failure or liver cancer over time.
The buildup of acetaldehyde is what makes you feel drunk. Feeling drunk can be a good indicator of too much acetaldehyde in the bloodstream.
Alcohol and the Brain
Research has shown that long term changes in your brain and your neuro-circuitry can happen even with low to moderate regular drinking (which is about 1-2 drinks per day). There is also evidence of thinning of neocortex and other brain regions.
Drinking Alcohol & Nutrition Intake
Hate to break it to you, but alcohol has no nutritional value.There are no nutrients in alcohol that are beneficial or useful for your brain or body; this is why some refer to alcohol as “empty calories.”
In fact, drinking alcohol disrupts the gut and we now know that the gut has been coined as the “second brain”. This means that the gut and brain are connected; they “speak” to each other. If you ingest any amount of alcohol you are disturbing your gut microbiome. Your gut microbiome is made up of trillions of tiny organisms and genetic materials in your intestinal tract. These organisms play a crucial role in your health and well being. Studies do show that 2-4 servings of fermented foods like sauerkraut, low sugar yogurts with a lot of healthy bacteria are helpful for reducing inflammation and improving the health of the gut microbiome in general. This isn’t examined in relation to alcohol, but these fermented foods can definitely help in improving gut health.
Many people who have body composition goals track their food and pay attention to their maintenance calories. If you are including alcohol in your life, then you’ll need to track that as well. While carbs and protein both have 4 calories per gram and fat has 9, ethanol actually has 7 calories per gram. Many people don’t take this into account when tracking macronutrients. If you have a calorie goal as well as macro goals, you will need to factor in these 7 calories per gram and track them. While there are a couple of apps that allow you to do this, most apps do not. If you’re using an app such as Myfitnesspal, you’ll need to take the calories in the drink and attribute them to either your carbs or fat when tracking the macros. We don’t recommend taking calories from protein grams to fit your alcohol in as we know how imperative protein is for muscle building and health.
5 ounce glass of red wine = 125 calories
If you decide to fit it into your carbs, you’ll divide the calories by 4; so it counts as “31g carbs.” If you wanted to count it as fat allotment, you’d divide by 9 and include it as “14g fat.”
If you eat before or while drinking, it can slow absorption of alcohol in the bloodstream. If a meal includes all macronutrients – protein, fats, and carbs – then you have a better chance of not feeling as drunk and feeling the negative effects of alcohol consumption. If you’re already down a drunken rabithole and then you eat, it’s already in your bloodstream so the food won’t sober you up. However, the meal can help if you plan on drinking more. We definitely recommend getting in a solid meal of whole, nutrient dense foods with adequate protein over that greasy pizza that people normally reach for. It won’t deter the negative effects of alcohol, but it can help with absorption.
When is the least harmful time to drink alcohol?
While there isn’t an “ideal” time to drink alcohol, drinking alcohol early enough in the day can allow your body to metabolize the alcohol before you go to sleep. We know that sleep is the most important factor for your recovery, so if you’re not getting a good night of rest you are severely limiting your chances for muscle and strength gains.
If you cap your drinks to two, you’re giving your body a better chance to get a better night of sleep than if you drink more than two drinks. It will take your body a lot longer to metabolize and break down the alcohol the longer you drink including the more total drinks you consume.
Alcohol and Recovery
Research suggests alcohol ingestion suppresses the anabolic response in skeletal muscle and may therefore impair recovery and adaptation to training and subsequent performance.
Alcohol has been shown to decrease testosterone and growth hormone and increase cortisol, all of which is very detrimental to building muscle. Longitudinal studies have been done that show increased intake of alcohol leads to decreases in strength.
So yes, alcohol will impact your recovery. If you are going to drink, do not do it directly after training as that’s an imperative time for recovery. Because of this, it’s probably actually slightly better to train hungover (not when you’re still drunk, of course) than it is to train before going out drinking. However, you will have a shitty workout when hungover so it’s best to just avoid drinking and training around the same time altogether. If you’re not recovering, your body will not be able to adapt to the stimulus of training, so you will not grow muscle or achieve the body composition you’re looking for.
The Relationship Between Alcohol and Fitness
Alcohol is, unfortunately, a toxin.
No alcohol is obviously better than some alcohol and some is better than a lot. Occasional drinking won’t most likely hurt you, but limiting this drinking to non-regular patterns is key to keeping your brain and body healthy.
Cui Y, Huang C, Momma H, Sugiyama S, Niu K, Nagatomi R. The longitudinal association between alcohol consumption and muscle strength: A population-based prospective study. J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2019 Sep 1;19(3):294-299. PMID: 31475936; PMCID: PMC6737549.
Daviet, R., Aydogan, G., Jagannathan, K. et al. Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank. Nat Commun 13, 1175 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-28735-5
Lakićević N. The Effects of Alcohol Consumption on Recovery Following Resistance Exercise: A Systematic Review. J Funct Morphol Kinesiol. 2019 Jun 26;4(3):41. doi: 10.3390/jfmk4030041. PMID: 33467356; PMCID: PMC7739274.
Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, Burke LM, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 12;9(2):e88384. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088384. PMID: 24533082; PMCID: PMC3922864.
Rachdaoui N, Sarkar DK. Effects of alcohol on the endocrine system. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 2013 Sep;42(3):593-615. doi: 10.1016/j.ecl.2013.05.008. PMID: 24011889; PMCID: PMC3767933.
Sierksma A, Sarkola T, Eriksson CJ, van der Gaag MS, Grobbee DE, Hendriks HF. Effect of moderate alcohol consumption on plasma dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, testosterone, and estradiol levels in middle-aged men and postmenopausal women: a diet-controlled intervention study. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2004 May;28(5):780-5. doi: 10.1097/01.alc.0000125356.70824.81. PMID: 15166654.