What science says about the effect of alcohol on body composition, strength and exercise by Kelechi Opara
Alcohol, like high-fructose corn syrup and caffeine, is one of the most misunderstood substances that many people regularly consume. Lots of people enjoy drinking and have questions about alcohol consumption and their weight management goals. I’m often asked how much alcohol someone can get away with drinking before it starts interfering with their plans to get a six pack, if there are any “healthy” drinks, and whether or not alcohol will slow down muscle gain. In this article, I’ll explain the answers to these questions and more as we delve into what alcohol really is and how it affects the body.
Most people, especially fitness enthusiasts, are under the impression that nothing good can come from alcohol. It is widely assumed that whenever one consumes alcohol, no matter the amount, one can expect to gain fat, lose muscle and incinerate brain cells (neurons), before ultimately ending up six feet under as a result of the onslaught of diseases and ailments, i.e. liver disease, high blood pressure, weakening of the immune system, etc., that result from high alcohol consumption. Is this assumption correct? No doubt, there is an element of truth to it-namely concerning the serious risks associated with consuming too much alcohol on a long term basis. However, things aren’t so black and white when it comes to moderate alcohol consumption. Alcohol’s effects on the body and mind can vary drastically. It is at the same time both a stimulating, energizing, calorie burning, life enhancing elixir AND a substance that causes depression, brooding, muscle wasting, and death. Let’s check out what science tells us about alcohol’s effect on the body!
What is Alcohol ?
In nut shell, when we talk about alcohol, we are talking about a “macro nutrient” with about 7.1 calories per gram. Alcohol is, in fact, really excrements of a single-celled organism trapped without oxygen at the bottom of a barrel! That’s right folks, we are talking about yeast and its byproduct, waste ethanol. Yeast utilizes oxygen to break down glucose for energy; however, in the event that it’s deprived of oxygen, i.e. when at the bottom of barrels or vats filled with grape juice, enzymes break down glucose. A byproduct (excrement) of this lengthy process is ethanol. Most people reading this couldn’t care less about yeast at the bottom of a barrel. It’s time to discuss the effects of alcohol consumption on muscle gain, fat storage, general health and the brain!
Starting From The Top: Booze’s effect on your noggin (How Alcohol Affects The Brain).
Terms to know:
- Neurons: Nerve cells that transmit information via electrical or chemical form. For instance, motor neurons carry out information from the brain to the muscles of the body to carry out an action.
- Neurotransmitter: Chemicals that neurons use to communicate information. Examples of Neurotransmitters: Endorphins, Dopamine, GABA, Glutamate.
- Receptor: Usually found on the surface of cells. It’s a protein molecule that receives and responds to a neurotransmitter then usually directs a cell to do/start any number of processes.
Some of alcohol’s effects on the brain are misunderstood by the general public. Many people still think that alcohol kills brain cells (neurons). This, however, isn’t the case (1). Alcohol impairs neurotransmitters by binding with them or clogging up their receptors, resulting in distortion-it doesn’t actually kill any cells.
Alcohol also interferes with the most abundant excitatory (think of it as the body’s accelerator pedal) neurotransmitter in our body, Glutamate, by reducing its function by a whopping 80 percent (5). The result of this is slowed brain activity, meaning that if the part of the brain that controls muscles is being influenced, a lack of coordination will result; if areas that control speech being slowed down are affected, it will lead to slurred speech; if the area that controls the autonomic nervous system, which in turns controls heart rate , is affected, breathing will be impaired. Glutamate is particularly responsible for memory formation and learning, explaining why disrupting and interfering in it results in memory loss.
In what can be considered a positive result of drinking, alcohol enhances courage (aka liquid courage), motivation, and can alleviate immediate depression. It also reduces anxiety (in the short term). In the first 20 minutes of consumption, alcohol increases Dopamine levels in the reward circuits of the brain (3), which not only explains part of the reason people get addicted (since they’re acting on the reward system of the brain), but also explains the euphoric, energizing feeling drinkers often get. Along the same lines, alcohol causes the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers (4).
Alcohol And Your Hormones: Can You Gain Muscle Whilst Boozing?
A substance like alcohol that has such a profound affect on the brain is sure to affect other areas of the body. Many people want to know the how alcohol affects testosterone. Many fitness enthusiasts cite a study showing a decrease of testosterone by 23 % due to alcohol as proof of it’s negative impact (6). It’s important to put this study into context though and understand the amount of alcohol being consumed in the study. (Check out the table below.) For part of the study, as many as 10 beers (or 120 g of ethanol) were consumed. In addition, testosterone was depressed for only16 hours.
Studies have found that more conservative, moderate alcohol consumption has been typically shown to have no influence or a decrease of only up to 6.8% concerning testosterone levels. For example, in a study conducted for a period of 3 weeks by Sierksma, people given 30-40g of alcohol per day saw testosterone levels drop a total of 6.8% (7).
Another study, performed in an acute manner where subjects consumed an equivalent of 70 -80g of alcohol right after a workout, showed no influence on testosterone and a slight increase in cortisol levels (8). Although all of these studies detracts from some commonly held beliefs, it still doesn’t mean there are no worries when it comes to alcohol and muscle gain. Heavy chronic consumption (7 to 10 drinks per day) can lead to muscle atrophy and weakness, as a study conducted by Preedy demonstrated (9).
Muscle gain isn’t the only side to body composition-there’s also body fat. After all, what’s the use of accumulating all that muscle if you have a thick layer of subcutaneous fat hiding it? So, how does alcohol affect your body fat levels?
Here is an equivalent of amount of alcohol used in the test above:
- 30-40g : 2-3 glasses of red wine or 2-3 12 oz beer cans, 2-3 shots of 40 proof liquor
- 70g – 80g : 5-6 12oz beer cans, 4-5 glasses of red wine 5 shots of 40 proof liquor
- 120g : 8 glasses of red wine , 10 12oz beer cans, 8-9 shots of liquor 40 proof
Alcohol And Your Chance For A 6 Pack (Alcohol And Body Composition)
The word alcohol conjures up images of a beer gut, but is this picture really accurate? As with most things in life, this is really a gray-area. One study found that groups of people who substituted ten percent of their calorie-intake with alcohol, versus a group who instead substituted with grape juice, experience greater weight loss (2.2lbs) after 12 weeks (10). This clearly doesn’t match up with what’s seen in the real world. The fact of the matter though is that the studies are right. Alcohol actually has about the same or slightly higher DIT (diet induced thermogenesis) than protein (11)(12). This means when you drink alcohol your body expends a lot of calories getting rid of it, explaining why the alcohol group in the study lost more weight. Actually, alcohol is the first thing your body gets rid of (oxidizes) in a mixed meal of protein/carbohydrates/fat with alcohol since it’s viewed as a toxin (13).
So where does the belly fat come from?
While it is true that alcohol causes the expenditure of more calories than the calories it contains in itself, alcohol suppresses fat oxidation when ingested. This means when you take in alcohol, you effectively put a stop on fat oxidation (burning). As a study by Sonko demonstrated, alcohol will cause fat gain IF consumed in excess of your caloric energy needs (14).
The body breaks down the macronutrients and alcohol in the following order: Alcohol, protein, carbohydrates, and lastly, fat. So, if you are drinking alcohol stored fat isn’t getting burned since the body is first trying to burn all of the alcohol. If all of the fat stores in your body are full, your body will create new fat cells (hyperplasia).
A toast to your health?
If you haven’t heard the health benefits of alcohol which came about from the French Paradox must have been living under a rock. (If that’s the case, it’s nice that you finally came out from under your rock to join us. Welcome to the real world.) Alcohol has been shown to reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and heart attacks by increasing the production of HDLs (high density lipoproteins). HDLs shuttle cholesterol to the liver, moving it away from the arteries, reducing blood clots and blocking the oxidation of LDLs (low density lipoproteins) through raising the level of antioxidants in the blood (15).
Another benefit of alcohol noted recently is its ability to strengthen the immune system by boosting the activity of natural killer cells via impairment of white blood cells (16). Another study, conducted over a period of 3 years, found that out of 417 volunteers given the rhino virus (common cold) via nasal drops, those that consumed alcohol were most resistant to catching a cold (17).
It bears noting what the authors of the research stated:
“Moderate alcohol consumption (2 drinks per day for men, 1 drink per day for women) seems to have a beneficial impact on the immune system compared to alcohol abuse or abstinence.”
This research might raise an eyebrow or two because it states that people who don’t drink at all are worse off than people who drink moderately.
It must be mentioned that drinking alcohol isn’t the only way to get the aforementioned benefits that are a result of alcohol consumption. Exercise elicits many of the benefits mentioned here, so if you don’t drink, there’s no need to start. If you do drink, make sure that you are doing so with moderation.
Putting it all together…
From the cited research above, it’s clear that to say alcohol has small range of affects on the body would be a gross under-exaggeration. Its influence on the mental state can range anywhere from a stimulated, less anxious, euphoric, energetic feeling via a mild boost of dopamine, endorphins and increasing GABA receptor sensitivity, to a feeling of depressed hopelessness, along with memory loss (blackouts) and impaired judgment.
Along the same lines, alcohol’s affect on body composition can range from bad to good. On one hand, there’s the loss of muscle through muscle atrophy and a significant decrease in the level of testosterone when it’s consumed excessively. Also, the accumulation of subcutaneous fat due to consumption in excess of your daily calories. It goes without saying that there are disastrous health consequences that comes along with excess alcohol consumption, including heart disease, high blood pressure, liver cirrhosis, and even death.
On the other side of the coin, when alcohol is consumed in a moderate, responsible manner (1 drink per day for women, 2 drinks per day for men), it has little to no impact on hormone levels, increases metabolic rate to the point of causing fat loss, and imparts a host of health benefits such as increasing HDL, increasing the level of antioxidants, and strengthening the immune system (in addition to potentially making people more resistant to the common cold). Studies even show those who drink moderately outlive those who practice abstinence.
After all is said and done, knowledge doesn’t hold much value if it’s not applicable to the person digesting it.
So how can you apply this to your life?
Type of alcohol
Drink red wine! To quote the researchers, “Red wine is produced by fermenting grape juice with the pulp, whereas white wine is produced by fermenting grape juice in the absence of the grape pulp. As a result, red wine has a much higher polyphenol content than white wine, as well as a higher level of antioxidant activity” (15). Concerning dark beers: 1 drink per day for women, 2 drinks per day for men (18).
On A Night Out Partying:
For those of you who drink, you have those occasions where you are going to indulge…What should you do to stay on track and not ruin your workout progress?
- Recall from the Sonko study (14) that accumulation of fat comes from consuming alcohol in excess of your daily caloric needs. This means…
- Overall calorie for the day should be lower so plan ahead for that night. This doesn’t mean drink on an empty stomach. Why not? When your stomach contains a sizable meal, you have a release valve called the pyloric sphincter that closes. So when you drink with food in your stomach, alcohol is trapped because the presence of a good size meal closes it in, allowing your body time to process the alcohol. Without food, this valve is open, thus allowing alcohol to enter your system much, much quicker. So…
- Reduce overall calories for the day by:
- Cutting out as much dietary fat as possible; this mean extra lean meats.
- Shifting the carbs for that day so that you’re getting them near the time of the event. You want complex carbohydrates.
** By cutting back on carbohydrates and dietary fat, you are indirectly cutting back on overall calories which will prevent you from getting off-track since you are not going over your daily calorie intake. Also, remember that your body expends a lot of calories getting rid of alcohol. In addition, recall above that fat is the first macro nutrient stored in the presence of alcohol so limit fatty foods on days you plan on drinking!
- Recall that protein has a high thermic effect/DIT(same as alcohol)(11)(12), so feel free to increase the amount of protein, but remember it must be as lean as possible.
- Try to avoid eating after drinking (this applies when you drink above moderation). The reason for this is that when alcohol is in your system everything else takes a back seat– carbohydrates and fat get stored while your body tries to process the alcohol. Eat the majority, if not all, of your meals for before indulging in alcohol.
Types of Drinks:
Drink wine, liquor, or light beer. No mixed drinks because once you start adding sodas and syrups (all the mixers) you are going to go over what your daily calorie intake should be. We don’t want that! So, it’s wine or liquor! If you really can’t do without mixers, try to use the following:
- Diet soda or diet tonic: 0 calories
- Light orange juice (8 oz): 50 calories
- Light cranberry juice (8 oz): 40 calories
- Light lemonade (8 oz): 5 calories
- Torani’s sugar-free syrups: 0 calories
- Lemon or lime juice (1/2 oz): 10 calories
- Coffee, tea: 0 calories
If you want to drink alcohol at night, make sure to plan ahead. Cut overall calories throughout the day and stick to wine, light beer, or liquor without mixers (if you really want to mix, use one of the mixers listed above).
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