Alcohol and Athletes: All You Ever Wanted To Know
It's the weekend again, so like clockwork, you head to the bar with the boys. Everyone needs some good old relaxation to ease the nerves after a hectic week, and alcohol is the number one way to get there fast.
While there's nothing wrong with the occasional drink, bending that elbow too frequently can have repercussions on your health, and athletic endeavors.
In fact, you can set yourself back quite a lot as binge drinking is associated with having a detrimental effect on your progress.
How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours.
The liver is capable of breaking down alcohol at a rate of about one standard drink per hour. So, if you have more than that in a two-hour period, your BAC will continue to rise as your liver tries to play catch up.
How Alcohol Can Affect You
It is a well-known fact that dehydration can have a profound effect on athletic performance. As little as 2% dehydration can start to sap your energy levels and affect your coordination.
When you drink alcohol, you are not only losing water through increased urination but also through increased sweating. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes your body to get rid of fluids more quickly than usual.
In general, alcohol shouldn't be consumed when you know you will be working out or participating in any kind of physical activity, as it will only intensify the effects of dehydration.
In addition to causing dehydration, alcohol also causes an electrolyte imbalance in your body.
Electrolytes are minerals that dissolve in water and are essential for proper cell function. They help regulate fluid levels in your body, as well as muscle contractions and nerve impulses.
Some of the most important electrolytes for athletes are sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
When you drink alcohol, it causes your body to excrete more water and electrolytes through urination. This can lead to cramping, weakness, and even heart arrhythmias.
This is also why one of the quickest ways to beat a hangover isn't with plain old water, but by using something called a banana bag. This replenishes not only the water but also the electrolytes you've lost.
Decreased Strength, Power, And Muscle Growth
Strength and power are two important aspects of athletic performance. They are also both highly dependent on testosterone levels.
Studies have shown that alcohol consumption can decrease testosterone levels by as much as 25% in men.
Drinking alcohol can also impair muscle growth and recovery.
Alcohol consumption has been shown to decrease levels of testosterone, a hormone that is essential for muscle growth. It also inhibits the production of new muscle proteins, which are necessary for repairs after exercise.
Plus, depending on what type of alcoholic beverage is your poison of choice, you could inadvertently be introducing more estrogen into your metabolic space- especially true when it comes to beer that is made from phytoestrogenic hops.
Alcohol Can Impair An Athlete's Coordination And Reaction Time
Do you remember the first few times you ever worked out? How it felt like quite the struggle to just achieve balance and stability? Well, alcohol can reintroduce that phase all over again.
Your proprioceptors- which are sensors in your muscles and joints that help you feel where your body is in space- don't work as well when you're drunk.
This means it's harder to maintain your balance, coordination, and reaction time- all skills that are crucial to not face-planting during a game or workout.
Removes/ Lowers Inhibitions
Removing inhibitions is great when trying to get a date. Not so much in the gym or when you're an athlete.
You're bound to do something you wouldn't do if you have lowered inhibitions. Think of throwing common sense to the wind, and opting for a weight much greater than you would safely use.
Do you see what we're getting to here? Serious injury could be the outcome. Confrontations are also common when you have alcohol in your system. In general, you should not step foot into the gym if you have alcohol in your system.
Increased Risk Of Gastrointestinal Inflammation
People with chronic acid reflux disease know how painful it can be to have digestive acids splash back up from the stomach into the esophagus.
But even if you don't have full-blown GERD, alcohol can still cause heartburn and other gastric issues because it relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This is the muscle that closes off your stomach from your throat.
And when the LES is relaxed, it's easier for digestive acids to come back up.
But that's not all. Alcohol also increases gastric acid secretion and can lead to inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis). All of these factors can lead to an upset stomach, diarrhea, and abdominal pain- none of which are pleasant when you're trying to perform your best.
Worst case scenario- the protective mucus lining in the stomach is compromised and an ulcer develops. This is not only extremely painful but could turn into a medical emergency if the ulcer bleeds.
Alcohol Can Negatively Affect Your Sleep, Which Is Essential For Optimal Athletic Performance.
It's no secret that a good night's sleep is important for athletes. In fact, many professional athletes make sure they get at least 8 hours of sleep per night to ensure they're performing at their best.
And yet, some people use alcohol as a nightcap. Big mistake.
While alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, it actually disrupts your sleep later in the night. This is because the alcohol prevents you from entering deep REM sleep- the most restorative phase of sleep.
This means you'll wake up feeling groggy and exhausted instead of well-rested and ready to take on the day.
Do not ever try to use alcohol as a sleep aide. Instead, use a science-backed and developed formula such as DREAMZZZ to really experience restorative sleep.
Alcohol Can Interfere With An Athlete's Ability To Absorb Nutrients From Their Food, Which Can Lead To Deficiencies In Important Vitamins And Minerals.
Some people report weight loss as a result of alcohol. This is true. But it is extremely dangerous. Why? Because alcohol paves the way for malnutrition, by actually impairing the absorption of key nutrients that promote health.
For one, over time alcohol negatively impacts the release of gastric acid and enzymes involved in digestion. This means that less nutritive value is obtained from food (when you can eat, since your appetite may be impaired or you experience pain from eating food).
Secondly, the liver pays a heavy price. Yes, while this organ is your saving grace since it actually metabolizes and breaks down the alcohol in your system, it also becomes impaired over time.
This is because when you drink alcohol, your liver produces more fat. This eventually leads to something called alcoholic fatty liver disease (AFLD), which is a serious and potentially fatal condition.
Then, there's also the fact that the enzymes which the liver makes are synthesized from co-factors, many of which occur in the form of vitamins and minerals.
Add to the mix the diuretic action of alcohol, and you can see how nutrients are lost by several means and add up to yield deficiencies.
B12, B1, Folic acid, and Zinc appear to be significantly affected by overconsumption of alcohol, all of which play important roles in physical performance.
Drinking Alcohol Can Increase An Athlete's Heart Rate And Blood Pressure, Which Can Put Them At Risk For Cardiovascular Problems.
While a certain amount of alcohol may actually help to protect your heart from disease, too much alcohol can actually have the opposite effect.
This is because alcohol has a direct impact on the cardiovascular system.
For one, it increases heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, just one hour after drinking alcohol, your blood pressure can increase by up to 5 mmHg.
And while this may not seem like a lot, it can actually put you at an increased risk for developing cardiovascular problems, such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.
What's more, alcohol also increases the levels of LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) in your blood, which can further contribute to the development of cardiovascular problems.
So, if you're going to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. And, opt for polyphenol-rich varieties, such as wine.
If have any history of cardiovascular problems, it's best to avoid alcohol altogether.
Alcohol Consumption Can Lead To Weight Gain, Which Can Be Detrimental To Athletes Who Need To Maintain A Healthy Weight.
We previously mentioned how alcohol might promote weight loss in an unhealthy way. That was in the short term. However, when it comes to long-term weight gain, alcohol is a big player.
Why? Because it contains calories. In fact, 7 calories per gram, to be exact. That means that, even if you're not eating any food, you can still pack on the pounds by drinking alcohol.
And, those calories tend to add up quickly. A single glass of wine can contain anywhere from 100 to 150 calories. And, a pint of beer can have as many as 200 calories.
What's more, the calories in alcohol are considered "empty calories" because they don't provide any nutritional value. So, not only will drinking alcohol lead to weight gain, but it will also cause you to miss out on important vitamins and minerals.
Add to the mix the aforementioned phytoestrogens, which promote fat storage, and you can see how alcohol consumption can quickly lead to weight gain.
Affects Mental Health
As our understanding of mental health grows, so does our understanding of how alcohol can impact it.
Exercise is proven to be one of the best tools at our disposal to keep us grounded, but what happens when the beneficial effect on your brain is being offset by alcohol?
Yes, turns out alcohol isn't such a great social tool after all. Alcohol can worsen social anxiety and trigger depressive episodes, in part by blocking the beneficial effects of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin on our brain chemistry.
It also disrupts sleep, which can further exacerbate mental health issues.
Athletes are at a higher risk for developing mental health issues due to the constant pressure to perform. This pressure can lead to anxiety and depression which are worsened under the influence.
In A Nutshell: Can An Athlete Drink Alcohol?
You absolutely can. There is no rule anywhere that says you can't. In fact, a few drinks occasionally won't do anything harmful to your health.
The danger comes from overconsumption, AKA, abuse. When you abuse alcohol, it can have a number of negative effects on your health, including your athletic performance.
So, if you're going to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. And make sure to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. That way, you can minimize the harmful effects of alcohol and still enjoy the occasional drink.
It's advised to have two times the amount of water to alcohol, or no more than one drink per hour.
And it's also best to keep your social time away from workout time. Nobody wants to deal with a drunk while trying to work out, and you pose a risk to others, and to yourself.
Schedule a few drinks once per week or so with friends, and as always, drink lots of water, take your greens and get plenty of sleep!