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How Does Alcohol Affect Your Athletic Performance?

By Perrin Braun Jan 09, 2013

 

Consider this: consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in just one night can affect your brain and physical activities for up to three days. However, some athletes drink alcohol before events to feel more alert, to calm their nerves, and to dull pain sensation. How does alcohol really affect your mind and body? 

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The effects of alcohol on a person depend on the amount consumed and individual tolerance. Some studies show that a small amount of certain kinds of alcohol (namely red wine) may have a protective effect on the cardiovascular system, but even a few drinks can nullify your hard work by erasing the effects of your workouts, reducing your endurance, and compromising your mental fortitude. InsideTracker can show you how to integrate small amounts of alcohol into a healthy diet, but athletes should be especially careful about indulging because they run the risk of jeopardizing their athletic performance when they drink.

The effects of alcohol on muscle development and recovery

Muscle health is the key to successful athletic performance, and science shows that alcohol can rob you of your hard work in the weight room. Here’s why:

Alcohol use impairs muscle growth – Not only does working out under the influence increase your likelihood of injury, but it can also impede muscle growth. Long-term alcohol use diminishes protein synthesis, resulting in a decrease in muscle growth. Even short-term alcohol use can affect your muscles.

Alcohol dehydrates your body – If you want to optimize your athletic performance, then you want your recovery from sore muscles to be as fast as possible. Alcohol has been shown to slow muscle recovery because it is a powerful diuretic that can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. When dehydrated, an athlete is at agreater risk for cramps, muscle pulls, and muscle strains.    

Alcohol prevents muscle recovery – Getting enough rest is essential to building bigger and stronger muscles. However, because drinking alcohol negatively affects your sleep patterns, your body is robbed of a chemical called human growth hormone, or HGH, when you drink. HGH plays an integral role in building and repairing muscles, but alcohol can decrease the secretion of HGH by as much as 70 percent. Additionally, when alcohol is consumed in amounts typical with binge drinkers, it can reduce serum testosterone levels, a biomarker that is measured by InsideTracker. Decreases in testosterone are associated with decreases in lean muscle mass and muscle recovery, which can impair performance.  

Alcohol depletes your energy - After alcohol is absorbed through your stomach and small intestine and moves into your cells, it can disrupt the water balance in your body. An imbalance of water in your muscle cells can hamper their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which provides the fuel that is necessary to help your muscles contract. A reduction in your body’s ATP can result in a lack of energy and loss of endurance.

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The effects of alcohol on memory

Performing your best involves learning plays or strategies for an event. Alcohol impairs the functioning of the hippocampus, a part of your brain that is vital to the foundation of memories. If you can’t form new memories, you can’t learn and store information.

Creating memories is a complex process that takes a long time, and many memories are established even when you’re not thinking about them. In fact, the majority of memory foundation happens when you sleep. Alcohol disrupts the sequence of duration of your sleep cycle (even if you drink up to six hours before you go to sleep!), which reduces your brain’s ability to process information.

The effects of alcohol on nutrition

Alcohol has lots of calories (about 7 per gram), but your muscles are unfortunately not able to use these calories for fuel. Alcohol calories are not converted to glycogen, a form of stored carbohydrates, and are consequently not a good source of energy for your body during exercise. Your body instead treats alcohol as fat, converting the sugar from alcohol into fatty acids. As a result, alcohol consumption increases fat storage and can adversely affect your percentage of body fat.

Not only is alcohol devoid of protein, minerals, and vitamins, but it also inhibits your body’s ability to absorb these nutrients from food:

Thiamine (vitamin B1) is involved in protein and fat metabolism, as well as the formation of hemoglobin. Because vitamin B1 plays a role in metabolizing carbohydrates, it is essential to optimal performance.  Vitamin B12 helps maintain healthy red blood and nerve cells. Folic acid is a part of a coenzyme involved in the formation of new cells. A deficiency in folic acid can result in a lower oxygen-carrying capacity, which can negatively affect your endurance. Zinc plays an important role in the process of energy metabolism. Alcohol depletes your body’s zinc resources, which can result in a reduction in endurance.

Lastly, even small amounts of alcohol (0.02-0.05g/dL) can result in a slowed reaction time and decreased hand-eye coordination. Not only can this impair performance, but a slowed reaction time can increase your risk for injury and poor judgment.

The effects of exercising with a hangover

Hangovers are actually caused by alcohol toxicity, dehydration, and the toxic effects of congeners (or the byproducts of fermentation) that are present in most alcoholic drinks. If you’ve ever experienced a hangover, you’ve probably felt the symptoms of nausea, soreness, depression, and headaches that frequently coincide with a proclamation to never drink alcohol again. The symptoms can lead to decreased athletic performance and have been known to decrease aerobic performance capacity by as much as 11%. So, if you have a lingering hangover, it’s best not to exercise, as it can increase your risk of injury and further dehydrate you.

If you’re physically active, consider how drinking will affect your athletic performance. If you choose to drink, avoid alcohol beyond low-amount social drinking for 48 hours before your event, and be sure to rehydrate and eat before consuming alcohol post-exercise.