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Protein & Alcohol -  How Does It Affect Muscle Growth - MrSupplement Article

Quick Protein vs Amino Acids Summary Points

  • Alcohol will generally decrease muscle protein synthesis in a time and dose response manner
  • More alcohol = less muscle building capacity. This effect will disappear after about 24 hours
  • Protein, as with other macronutrients in foods and supplements will slow down alcohol absorption.
  • Alcohol will decrease protein absorption
  • If you are planning to drink, try to have some protein after your workouts first and allow an hour or more before starting drinking
  • Avoid training hungover

Drinking - MrSupplement ArticleDrinking & Muscle Gain

There’s nothing quite like having a drink after a long days work to help you relax and wind down. Other than helping you feel a little less inhibited and more relaxed, a certain level of alcohol consumption is actually associated with decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and early death1. But how does alcohol affect gains?

Alcohol & Protein Synthesis

In terms of alcohol and muscle protein synthesis, there are a few variables that you need to look at, which will change exactly what alcohol does to muscle building. These include:

  • How much alcohol you have
  • The rate of absorption and clearance of alcohol by the body

Generally speaking, alcohol will decrease muscle protein synthesis in a dose and time dependent manner2. That is, the more alcohol you have, the bigger the decrease in muscle building. This decrease only really occurs during acute states of alcohol consumption. In other words, your ability to build muscle is the lowest while you are drinking. Once you stop drinking though, your body’s ability to build muscle begins to return and should reach optimal pre drink levels around 24 hours. 

Effects of Alcohol After a Workout

After your workout, your heart rate and blood flow will generally be up, however this blood flow is generally directed to working skeletal muscle and away from the digestive system. As such, it can technically slow down how fast alcohol gets into your bloodstream, but probably not by much as its digestion and absorption is generally quite fast. Because of the increased blood flow following exercise, you might find yourself experiencing the effects slightly faster.

Chronic exercise however actually helps to improve your tolerance to alcohol3. Because alcohol is more soluble in water than fat and because skeletal muscle is higher in water, the amount of muscle you have is definitely associated with alcohol tolerance. This is also why women tend to have a lower alcohol tolerance level, as they generally have a higher body fat percentage. In addition, exercise helps to limit the alcohol related cell death that occurs with consumption.

Protein & Alcohol Absorption

Any type of food or supplement regardless of whether it contains carbohydrates, fat or protein will slow down the digestion and absorption of alcohol4,5. As such, having a protein shake prior to alcohol consumption will slow down how quickly your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises. Generally, your BAC will be the highest around 30 minutes after your last drink. However, this can be as long as 60 minutes. With food and supplement intake however, this can slow it down to almost 2 hours.

Alcohol & Protein Absorption

How about the other way around? How does alcohol affect protein digestion and absorption kinetics? Alcohol is considered an irritant to many tissues of the body6, especially when consumed in large quantities. It is known to inhibit the secretions of digestive enzymes from the pancreas, which are released to help digest protein and other macronutrients. In addition, alcohol can also damage the cells of the small intestine, which can further limit absorption. As such, it’s probably not a great idea to have alcohol too soon after consuming protein. Try to leave at least an hour, if not more.  

How Does Alcohol Affect Muscle Growth?

The bottom line is that alcohol is not good for muscle growth at all2,7,8,9, whether it’s through acute or chronic consumption. As noted above, alcohol intake will decrease protein digestion and absorption. Couple with the fact that it will actually decrease muscle protein synthesis and you have a pretty bad mix of things that will inhibit your ability to make gains.

Regardless of your age, if you reach the same level of blood alcohol concentration, you will experience similar levels of depressed muscle protein synthesis. This will hamper your recovery efforts, training adaptations and potential for growth. With that in mind, if you are going to have a drink after training, here are some tips to ensure all that hard effort in the gym doesn’t go to waste:

  • Have some protein or a meal after your workouts and leave at least one hour between that and your first consumption of alcohol. This will allow you more time to maintain an anabolic environment before the alcohol slows down muscle protein synthesis.
  • While muscle protein synthesis is decreased regardless, it seems to be reduced less with protein intake than carbohydrate intake. So go for the steak or the protein shake rather than chips.
  • Higher volume, low alcohol drinks such as beer10 will slow down the absorption of alcohol and therefore is a better option if you want to limit how much alcohol reduces muscle building.
  • If you are going to drink on an empty stomach, a higher alcohol percentage (40% or greater) will also slow down alcohol absorption so helps to limit the reduction of muscle protein synthesis.
  • Drinks that are absorbed the fastest are half and half mixer drinks, so limit those if you’re aim is to maintain your anabolic state.
  • Avoid training if you’re hungover – you’ll most likely be weaker and may increase your risk of injury.

Drinking & Workouts

Having a drink every now and again isn’t going to ruin your gains. The real problem comes if you drink often or a lot after your training sessions, which can affect your body’s ability to synthesise protein and build muscle. As with all types of foods, moderation is key, but if drinking is part of the agenda, maybe skip the workout for another day.

1. O'Keefe, JH; Bhatti, SK; Bajwa, A; DiNicolantonio, JJ; Lavie, CJ (March 2014). "Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the dose makes the poison...or the remedy.". Mayo Clinic Proceedings 89 (3): 382–93.
2. Lang CH, Pruznak AM, Nystrom GJ, Vary TC. 'Alcohol-induced decrease in muscle protein synthesis associated with increased binding of mTOR and raptor: Comparable effects in young and mature rats.' Nutr Metab (Lond). 2009 Jan 20;6:4. 
3. Leasure JL, Nixon K. Exercise Neuroprotection in a Rat Model of Binge Alcohol Consumption. Alcoholism, clinical and experimental research. 2010;34(3):404-414.
4. Rogers J, Smith J, Starmer GA, Whitfield JB. 'Differing effects of carbohydrate, fat and protein on the rate of ethanol metabolism.' Alcohol Alcohol. 1987;22(4):345-53.
5. Jones, A. W., Jönsson, K. Å. and Kechagias, S. (1997), Effect of high-fat, high-protein, and high-carbohydrate meals on the pharmacokinetics of a small dose of ethanol. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 44: 521–526.
6. Think before you Drink - How alcohol affects your health | Institute for Optimum Nutrition. 2016. Think before you Drink - How alcohol affects your health | Institute for Optimum Nutrition. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ion.ac.uk/information/onarchives/thinkbeforedrink. [Accessed 24 May 2016].
7. Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, et al. Alcohol Ingestion Impairs Maximal Post-Exercise Rates of Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following a Single Bout of Concurrent Training. Alway SE, ed. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(2):e88384.
8. Pacy PJ, Preedy VR, Peters TJ, Read M, Halliday D. 'The effect of chronic alcohol ingestion on whole body and muscle protein synthesis--a stable isotope study.' Alcohol Alcohol. 1991;26(5-6):505-13.
9. Steiner JL, Kimball SR1, Lang CH. 'Acute Alcohol-Induced Decrease in Muscle Protein Synthesis in Female Mice Is REDD-1 and mTOR-Independent.' Alcohol Alcohol. 2016 May;51(3):242-50.
10. Absorption and elimination of alcohol. 2016. Absorption and elimination of alcohol. [ONLINE] Available at: http://forcon.ca/learning/alcohol.html. [Accessed 24 May 2016].
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