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Athletic performance: what’s alcohol got to do with it?

Alcohol: it’s so pervasive in our culture. We drink when we’re happy. We drink when we’re sad. Some sources say we’ve felt the need to get a little tipsy for as long as 10 million years.

In certain amounts it’s good for us. It may reduce the risk of developing and dying from heart disease, ischemic stroke, and diabetes.

In excessive amounts, however, it’s linked to liver disease, pancreatitis, cancer, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems, immune system dysfunction, brain damage, malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies, osteoperosis, and heart disease.

Have you ever wondered what it does to performance?

I have.

These are the things I think about when the team and I are sitting on the patio after a soccer game crushing a pitcher of Coors Light on a hot day. They’re reminiscing about their great shot or an amazing save; I’m silently contemplating what the alcohol is doing inside my body at that very moment.

I’ve learned there are direct effects of alcohol on performance and indirect effects.

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Direct effects of alcohol on performance

  1. Alcohol interrupts recovery and adaptation

Muscle gets broken down when you exercise as it strains to keep up with the excessive stress you’ve just placed on it (This isn’t a bad thing. It’s a very necessary component of adaptation). To recover, certain things need to happen. Things like protein synthesis.

Protein synthesis occurs in muscle after exercise to increase the size of muscle components. Increasing the size of muscle components makes the muscle stronger and able to function at a higher capacity than it did before.

Protein synthesis is why it’s so important to get nutrients, like protein, into your body within 30 minutes of exercise and again every three to four hours afterwards. Because your body is actively generating new muscle components and it needs the proper building blocks (protein) to do so.

Alcohol interrupts this recovery and adaptation process.

A group of researchers in Australia, led by Evelyn Parr, studied the effect of alcohol on muscle adaptation. The participants in the study completed a bout of resistance exercise followed by some cycling. They found consuming alcohol, even at the same time as protein, after this exercise bout decreased the rate of protein synthesis.

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  1. Alcohol impairs rehydration

If you’re doing any kind of real exercise, you’re going to break a sweat, which means you’re losing water. And water is pretty important in the body – it makes up 60% of the average person’s body weight.

There’s a whole list of things associated with even short-term or mild dehydration. These include headaches, reduced calorie control, muscle cramps, decreased athletic performance, and decreased cognitive performance.

Alcohol impairs rehydration because it is a diuretic. That means it is a substance that increases the production of urine.

Normally, there’s a little hormone circulating in the blood called anti-diuretic hormone (ADH). It gets secreted by the pituitary gland and tells the kidneys to keep water in the body and prevent some of it from getting drained away when you pee.

Alcohol tells the pituitary gland to stop secreting ADH. Less ADH means the kidneys aren’t getting the message to keep water in the body and more is getting passed out in the urine.

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Indirect effects of alcohol on performance

  1. Alcohol alters your eating patterns

Diet and performance are intimately linked. You put crap in your body you’re going to get crappy performance.

The alternative is also true. You put high quality stuff in your body and you’re going to get high quality performance.

Alcohol has an interesting effect on eating patterns.

Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island found eating patterns are altered before, during, and following drinking episodes. The participants in the study reported increased appetite, overeating, and making unhealthy food choices.

The findings of the study demonstrate the more long-term eating pattern changes with alcohol. It’s not just what you do while you’re drinking.

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  1. Alcohol affects your sleep

Drinking alcohol reduces the amount and quality of your sleep. Just one night of heavy drinking can reduce your sleep by one to three hours.

Alcohol decreases sleep amount by messing with adenosine – a chemical that makes you sleepy. Drinking alcohol rapidly increases adenosine levels making you tired and able to fall asleep very fast. But, it also causes adenosine to get cleared just as rapidly as it came on. This makes you wake up before you’re completely rested.

Sleep quality also decreases. Alcohol increases the amount of delta and alpha activity and interrupts REM sleep.

Delta activity is slow-wave sleep patterns normally present in sleep. It’s the kind of sleep that allows for memory formation and learning.

Alpha activity is the kind you don’t normally find during sleep. It’s more associated with wakeful rest.

So, with alcohol, you’re asleep, but you’re kind of awake at the same time.

REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, occurs in intervals throughout the night. Not surprisingly, it’s characterized by rapid eye movements, more dreaming and bodily movement, and a faster pulse and breathing.

It’s also considered the most restful type of sleep.

With alcohol, you get less REM sleep, which means you feel groggy and unrested when you wake up.

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Alcohol can be good for you. But timing and amount are everything. Research now tells us that:

  • alcohol right after exercise impairs the recovery process (meaning you’re not going to get as much out of your workouts and your performance during your next gym bout isn’t going to be as good as it could have been),
  • it impedes rehydration and contributes to dehydration (which is directly linked to decreased cognitive and athletic performance)
  • it alters your eating patterns (poorer nutrition, poorer performance)
  • it leads to less restful sleep (less sleep, less recovery, poorer performance)

If you’re going to indulge in a few cold ones, keep it to a moderate amount and make sure you leave enough time after you exercise to let your body recover.

Have a great week and be sure follow the blog and follow Healthy Wheys on social media (Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter).



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