The Effects Of Alcohol On Bodybuilding
So you’ve decided to become serious about bodybuilding.
You’re consuming more protein than the average T-Rex did, spending so much time in the gym you’re on first name terms with the entire staff, and have miraculously condensed an entire aisle of your local GNC into your kitchen cupboard.
Nevertheless, the weekend comes around and it’s inevitably the time to go on the lash with your mates.
You know this will indubitably involve titanic measures of alcohol, and, if you’re unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of GymTalk author Henry Croft, unnecessarily frequent use of the word c**t and inevitable (unwelcome) acts of pseudo-homosexuality.
I’ve had these questions asked of me a number of times:
“Can I maintain a high-quality body while still getting off my tits regularly?”
“How bad can binge drinking really affect you?”
“Why does it burn when I pee?” (Sorry, wrong article)
So for your benefit and the sake of my sanity, I’ve decided to take this opportunity to shed some light on the matter.
The simple truth
Let’s be realistic: no matter how dedicated you are as a bodybuilder, total abstinence from alcohol might just take a toll on your social life.
The situation is especially true in the UK where copious amounts of alcohol is often the norm for a night out.
The above questions (as most questions in life of any importance) are not easy to answer, as each and every person on this planet is built completely differently.
But I can say, with absolute certainty, that binge drinking is not good for you.
I repeat, getting drunk is not good for you.
And it will hinder your gains.
If this comes as a surprise then I would like to welcome you into the 21st century.
That rock you’ve lived under for the past decade must be getting a bit old now.
What does alcohol actually do to our body?
At the risk of wasting interweb space, let’s first make sure we understand what alcohol is actually doing in our bodies.
When we refer to alcohol, we are actually talking about ethanol – something to remember if you want to sound a tad more intellectual at pre-drinks.
Ethanol is a little molecule that does a whole lot of different things.
The truth is that there is a quite a lot of things we don’t actually know about ethanol and what it does.
The obvious effects of ingesting a large amount of alcohol are obvious – such as making you act like a blundering idiot and making it possible for overweight people to get laid.
However, underneath all this, its metabolism and actions are actually quite complicated.
Ethanol undergoes a series of changes in our bodies that can be simplified as:
Acetylaldehyde is especially nasty stuff, which you can also find in your cars exhaust fumes (if you care to look).
It converts to something called ‘free radicals’, which are toxic to your organs and carcinogenic, and it’s what makes you feel like you’ve been trampled by a stray elephant on those Sunday mornings.
As a side note, this well known reaction is actually taken advantage of pharmacologically by the drug Disulfiram.
This old school drug blocks the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, which is responsible for converting acetyl aldehyde to the non-toxic acetic acid.
When alcoholic patients relapse and have a drink while on this drug, they quickly experience painful and intense hangover symptoms, which can even be life threatening.
Needless to say, many don’t repeat their mistake!
Anyway, getting back on track, I will outline some ways to reduce the effects of acetylaldehyde at the end of this article.
Something to bear in mind is that there are alternate pathways in alcohol metabolism6, and your levels of enzymes able to perform these processes will vary with factors such as ethnicity, age, and your regular ethanol intake.
Therefore, we must remember that each individual will handle their alcohol differently.
However, as we continue in the typical process of alcohol metabolism, the steps finally result in something called Acetyl-CoA.
Now if you think back to your biology lessons, this can be converted into energy via another set of reactions called the citric acid cycle.
Hence alcohol provides us with a source of energy.
In other words alcohol drinks have calories.
Considering the complexity of these steps, this is quite the oversimplification.
However, what we should remember is that under most circumstances alcohol will yield 7kCal per gram.
This is more than either carbohydrate or protein – and close to the 9kCal/gram of pure fat.
Let’s move on to some maths.
Now a standard shot in the UK is 25mL (35mL in Ireland – and about double in Russia).
A shot of whiskey will result in 56 calories.
A pint of Heineken will give you 227 calories.
A litre of Frosty Jacks (for you students/homeless tramps) is 460 calories.
All of this adds up – and quickly, especially if you’re mixing your drinks with sugary mixers.
A single sugar-free Jäger bomb can easily give you over 100 calories.
And, as we all know from the classic documentary ‘My New Haircut’, you can never have just one Jäger bomb!
To make matters worse, if anyone has ever found themselves in a late night kebab shop patiently waiting for something you would not normally consider fit to serve your dog, alcohol can impact your appetite and judgment.
Ethanol causes a drop in blood sugar called hypoglycemia and thus increases cravings for carbohydrates.
Our bodies normally increase the release of insulin while under the influence, which, when combined with a high carb/high fat meal, can only spell disaster for our waistlines.9
Part of the reason is ethanol also induces insulin resistance, which promotes a cycle of increased release of insulin.7
How does binge drinking affect gains?
The calories in alcohol aren’t the only issue.
Once your body starts processing alcohol it doesn’t like to do much of anything else, such as burning fat or repairing muscle.
Think of playing PS3 while your girlfriend tries to tell you about her day; the latter is just not going to receive much attention.
Indeed, studies show that lipolysis or fat burning goes down by over 70% while consuming alcohol as ethanol metabolism takes priority.
Protein synthesis and muscle repair is also significantly decreased5, 11, and alcohol wrecks havoc on glucose control, muscle glycogen uptake, and insulin response.7
All these mean that muscle synthesis is not only directly impaired but that the muscle tissue is deprived of the fuel it needs for recovery.
Drinking after a workout has shown to lead to not only slower repair of muscle tissue, but also incomplete repair.1,12
The implications of this are obvious when we consider the fact that it is this post-workout repair phase that constitutes the enlargement of skeletal muscle.
In simple terms you will not get as big as quickly.
Levels of anabolic hormones such as testosterone and IGF (insulin-like growth factor and key player in muscle growth) are also reduced with acute ethanol intake.2,8
Testosterone of course is a male hormone responsible for masculine traits and facilitates the growth of skeletal muscle.
IGF works alongside testosterone and growth hormone to promote an anabolic environment.
All these hormones fluctuate throughout your body during the day, with much of the production occurring in our sleep.
Knowing this, it is easy to see why an alcohol-induced decrease in these hormones would be detrimental.
However, I will point out that it is difficult to make concrete conclusions from hormone studies and there is one that has recently been published contradicting some of these effects of alcohol on testosterone and forcing us to reevaluate these views.13
But that’s science for you.
Testosterone levels naturally fluctuate widely (due to a plethora of different variables) – and when compared to other factors, it should not be a main concern.
Personally I don’t agree with others who quote reductions in testosterone as a major side effect of sporadic binge drinking (chronic alcoholism is another matter altogether however).
Minimising the effects of binge drinking on your body
Anyway, enough waffling on about how alcohol is bad.
I realise what most of you really want to know is some things that can be done to minimise these bad effects.
So I’ve devised some points that can do just that:
• Don’t work out shortly before a night of heavy drinking, leave it to the next day.
• Avoid caloric mixers, ciders and beers. Stick to spirits with sugar free soda mixers.
• Drink plenty of water throughout the night – this is a no-brainer and helps with acute dehydration on your nights out.
• Take a B-complex containing thiamine, and vitamin C (I take at least 1g of the modified release version) once you get back home. This helps to offset the toxic effects of acetylaldehyde and will lessen hangover symptoms.10
• Buy some rehydration salts (such as Diorylate™) and drink with plenty of water when you get back home. This will help reverse dehydration.
• Avoid high carb and high fat meals on the night out and the morning after. Have something high in protein as a breakfast meal.
Abiding by some of these points will ensure that you’re getting the minimum possible excess calories on nights out, minimise the harmful effects of dehydration, and reduce the toxicity of acetylaldehyde with anti oxidants.
The hardest bits of this regiment is be the avoidance of junk food after drinking, but it is essential.
It is the prime reason for the detrimental effects of drinking on your physique.
A post drinking meal should ideally be rich in protein and low in carbohydrates and fat.
I’m afraid will power is the key here!
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To hammer in the point again, the less frequently you binge drink the better.
Keep your priorities straight, and ask yourself if a short lived drunken state is worth the hard work you put in the gym.
No amount of precautions I could outline will negate the deleterious effects of drinking.
However, with a bit of preparation, you can help to offset some of the negative effects of alcohol.
Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too, but just remember, moderation is the key.
And don’t eat actual fucking cake.
Disclaimer: The content of this and any of my articles should be used for entertainment purposes only. Consult your doctor about any change in diet, medication, supplements, alcohol intake, or training. A good relationship with your GP is a vital part of staying in optimal health, involve them in your diet and training goals. I am not liable for any damages caused.
1.Barnes MJ, Mündel T, Stannard SR. Post-exercise alcohol ingestion exacerbates eccentric-exercise induced losses in performance. Institute of Food, Nutrition, and Human Health, Massey University, Private Bag 11-222, Palmerston North, New Zealand. M.Barnes@massey.ac.nzEur J Appl Physiol. 2010 Mar;108(5):1009-14.
2. 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. Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Institute of Neurosciences, School of Medicine, University of Granada, Avda. de Madrid, s/n, 18012, Granada, Spain. Alcohol Alcohol. 2002 Mar-Apr;37(2):169-73.
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