How Alcohol Affects Exercise

When I worked as the sports nutritionist for a Division 1 University, many of the athletes were curious how drinking alcohol the night before a game or practice effected their performance.

Here’s what I told them…alcohol use increases dehydration, gets in the way of muscle recovery, and increases your risk of injury. It can also lead to muscle cramps.

Few athletes realize consuming alcohol after a workout, practice, or competition can cancel out any physiological gains you may have received from such activities. Long-term use reduces protein synthesis, which makes it very difficult to repair and build muscle. But even short-term alcohol use can hinder muscle growth.

Alcohol use requires increased conditioning to maintain weight.

Alcohol holds very little nutritional value to the athlete. The relatively high calories in alcohol are not available to our muscles. Alcohol calories are not converted to glycogen, a form of stored carbohydrates, and thus are not a good source of energy during exercise. Each drink contains approximately 100-150 empty calories. The body treats alcohol as fat, converting alcohol sugars into fatty acids.

Alcohol causes dehydration and slows down the body’s ability to heal.

Speeding the recovery of sore muscles and injuries is integral to optimal performance. Alcohol is a toxin which travels through your bloodstream to every organ and tissue in your body, causing dehydration and slowing your body’s ability to heal itself.

Alcohol use prevents muscle recovery.

In order to build bigger and stronger muscles, your body needs sleep to repair itself after a workout. Because of alcohol's effect on sleep, however, your body is robbed of a precious chemical called "human growth hormone" or HGH. HGH is part of the normal muscle-building and repair process and the body's way of telling itself your muscle needs to grow bigger and stronger. Alcohol, however, can decrease the secretion of HGH by as much as 70%! Also, when alcohol is in your body, it triggers the production of a substance in your liver that is directly toxic to testosterone. Testosterone is essential for the development and recovery of your muscles.

Alcohol use depletes your source of energy.

Once alcohol is absorbed through your stomach and small intestine and finally into your cells, it can disrupt the water balance in muscle cells, thus altering their ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is your muscles' source of energy. ATP provides the furl necessary for your muscles to contract.

Alcohol also reduces energy sources by inhibiting a process known as gluconeogenesis in which glucose is formed from substances other than glucose. When alcohol is oxidized by alcohol dehydrogenase (an enzyme), it produces an elevation of NADH, which ultimately reduces the amount of a coenzyme that is essential in the production of ATP. This loss of ATP results in a lack of energy and loss of endurance.

Drink Responsibly.

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods

Article courtesy of: Firth, G. How Alcohol Affects Nutrition and Endurance.  UC San Diego.

Other references: Vella, LD, Cameron-Smith, D. Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery. Nutrients. 2010 August; 2(8): 781-789. 


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