"Does alcohol affect your progress in the gym? If you're going to have a drink, what's the best drink to go for?"
A lot of us celebrate with a drink, commiserate with a drink, we enjoy a drink when we knock off work on a Friday, and watching the game or hitting the town doesn't feel the same to a lot of people without a couple under their belt.
We live in a country where drinking is entrenched in the culture, and alcohol is part of many social activities. Being in the pub instead of the gym is not going to help you build muscle, not even in your drinking arm, but can alcohol consumption hold you back in other ways? As you may have guessed, the answer is yes.
The odd drink or two in moderation is not going to cause too many problems, but frequent or heavy drinking is not compatible with muscle gains, and it's a ticket to poor health.
Firstly, alcohol is packed full of calories, and delivers next to no nutrients in return. This might not worry someone trying to bulk up, but the extra energy from alcohol can totally derail any efforts to lose weight. If a man consumes his recommended daily alcohol allowance of four standard drinks in full strength beer, he is taking in 425 extra calories, which is almost one quarter of the average 2000 calorie recommended daily energy allowance. If he prefers bourbon and coke, he's getting close to 800 extra calories, and that's just keeping within the recommended guidelines, which let's face it, not everybody has in the back of their mind when they're knocking a few back with their mates.
Secondly, Alcohol intoxication suppresses the production of testosterone in men, and it increases testosterone levels in women (1). Chronic alcohol use can lead to a long term change on the way the body processes hormones, and development of female characteristics like gynecomastia can be seen in some men who drink heavily (2). This is particularly the case for beer drinkers, as the hops, a plant used to flavour beer, contains natural phytoestrogens, which mimic the female hormone, oestrogen. Testosterone is a potently anabolic hormone, and is the reason that men, but not women, can bulk up. This hormone is a bodybuilder's best friend, and lowering the level your body produces will certainly slow any potential gains.
On top of this, alcohol has been shown to reduce protein synthesis (3). A recent study looking at this phenomenon showed that when alcohol is consumed after training, protein synthesis is reduced by 37% compared to people who stuck to a protein shake. Even consuming alcohol and protein together resulted in a significant drop in protein synthesis.
Finally, and obviously, if you drink enough that you have a hangover the next day, you're probably not going to get to the gym. You are also more likely to have slept poorly, preventing your body from obtaining the rest and repair it requires, and more likely to make poor food choices. You are probably dehydrated, which has slowed down your metabolism, and you've most likely depleted your body of vital muscle minerals like zinc and magnesium.
That said, occasional, moderate drinking is not going to cause any problems for the majority of people, and some drink choices are better than others. Here are our tips:
- Avoid sugary mixers and liqueurs. These are a big source of empty sugar calories. Go for low sugar free soft drinks, plain soda, juice, or savour your scotch over ice. A 30mL shot of spirit only contains 67 calories.
- A glass of red wine is a good choice because it is rich in antioxidants and clocks in at 120 calories per 150mL glass. Make sure you're not overpouring, which is easy to do.
- The odd beer isn't going to turn pecs into breasts, but consider switching to a light beer (low alcohol), or a low carb beer to save calories.
The Australian guidelines recommend consumption of no more than four standard drinks per day for men, and two for women, with at least two alcohol free days per week (and no, you can't save them up!) Drinking, like most things, is best done in moderation. Keeping alcohol consumption infrequent and sensible is going to put you on the right track to muscle gains, fat loss, and good health.
(1) Frias J, Torres JM, Miranda MT, Ruiz E, Ortega E. Effects of acute alcohol intoxication on pituitary-gonadal axis hormones, pituitary-adrenal axis hormones, beta-endorphin and prolactin in human adults of both sexes. Alcohol Alcohol. 2002 Mar-Apr;37(2):169-73.
(2) Myking O, Aakvaag A, Digranes O. Androgen-oestrogen imbalance in men with chronic alcoholism and fatty liver. Alcohol Alcohol. 1987;22(1):7-15.
(3) Karinch AM, Martin AH and Vary TC. 'Acute and chronic ethanol consumption differentially impact pathways limiting hepatic protein synthesis.' AJP - Endo July 2008 vol. 295 no. 1 E3-E9