Fall is rapidly approaching, and with it, the best season for beer!
No, not this beer.
We’re going to take some time to talk about the physical effects of booze, for the purpose of education. We don’t judge, and whether you partake is up to you. But knowing the effects can help inform your decision. Here we go:
Digestion: Alcohol can be considered as a fourth macronutrient. Macronutrients, or macros, are nutrients that have caloric value. The first three are carbohydrates, fat, and protein. Through various processes, our bodies break down these nutrients and use them to create energy for our cells or store them for later.
Alcohol does not have a storage form, so it must be burned right away. This means that while there is alcohol in our systems, we prioritize burning it over the other macros. The ramifications of this are that muscle protein synthesis is impaired, and fat burning is suppressed.
Muscle protein synthesis is needed to rebuild muscle damaged during exercise, build new muscle, and maintain lean muscle during weight loss. Fat burning is when body fat is shuttled from storage and used for energy. This only happens when there are no other energy sources available. The body prefers to use carbs, so by adding in alcohol, the priority list becomes alcohol – carbs – fat. Therefore, alcohol consumption can prevent the building of muscle, and the burning of fat.
Hormones: Excessive alcohol consumption in a single bout (4+ drinks) can blunt testosterone and actually stimulate its conversion into estrogen. As a one time or occasional occurrence, this isn’t a big deal. However, if this occurs regularly, it can become the norm, which is a problem.
Additionally, alcohol consumption can increase blood sugar and decrease insulin sensitivity. Finally, alcohol consumption can increase cortisol production – the stress hormone.
Sleep: Many people fall asleep easily after drinking. But falling asleep is a process. Alcohol consumption close to bedtime can bypass this process, and OVERASSIST in falling asleep. In other words, you pass out; you’re unconscious, not asleep. As a result, you get less REM sleep in the first half of your sleep. Your second half of sleeping will be filled with wakefulness. So, alcohol can disrupt sleeping patterns. Again, occasionally, this isn’t that big a deal, depending on your goals. But night after night and sleeping poorly can have detrimental effects such as decreased testosterone production and increased cortisol production (double whammy given the above section on hormones). Lack of sleep can also cause your appetite to increase, which brings us to:
Energy Balance: 1 gram of alcohol yields 7 calories. As stated above in the digestion section, our bodies prioritize those calories as an energy source to get rid of the alcohol. But unlike the other macros, alcohol is not used in any vital functions in the body. This is why the calories are called “empty calories.” Combine alcohol with sugary options in a mixed drink, and you have a calorically dense beverage on your hands. Add in the appetite stimulation from lack of sleep, and impaired judgement that too much alcohol can give you, and it’s easy to see how alcohol can lead to an extremely high caloric outing. We’ve also mentioned that the body can store excess carbs and fat in the body. Fat is most easily converted into its storage form, which is body fat. And, since alcohol is burned first, followed by carbs, if you’re drinking frequently and in a constant caloric surplus, you can expect to put on body fat.
Impaired Motor Control: Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to a loss of motor control, which increases the likelihood of injury. This one is straightforward.
Given the above list of detrimental effects, why would anyone drink? Many of those effects only come into play with regular, high doses of alcohol. The occasional drink for active people is largely negligible. Plus, health is holistic, and we can’t just consider the physical. Many people enjoy the taste of alcohol. Additionally, alcohol lowers inhibitions, so it can be a social lubricant, leading to perceptions of more enjoyable social interactions. Some people drink to deal with stress. And some people drink as an escape mechanism. These last two reasons aren’t healthy, so if that’s you on a regular basis, we encourage you to seek some help. As for the other reasons, context, dose, and frequency matter.
If you enjoy the occasional beverage and can make it work as part of an overall healthy lifestyle, then have at it. But, keep in mind the physical effects, and how alcohol can interfere. If fat loss or muscle gain are a goal, then we might want to consider limiting consumption. For people who track macros and want to include the occasional drink, we suggest counting alcohol as a carb rather than a fat. While you can do either, since we’ve established that alcohol is burned first, followed by carbs and then fat, it makes the most sense to treat it as a carb. At the end of the day, it’s your choice. Our job is to educate you as much as we can, and then you can make the best decision for you. See you in the gym. Skol!