Flashback to 1995. I’m 22 years old. I study biochemistry in the mornings, and I train myself and a few clients in the afternoons. After 9 PM I’m a bartender at one of the hottest bars at North Carolina State University. The place was called La Cantina. It was ranked by Playboy as one of the best college bars in the country. Lots of partying in that place.
Here’s the deal. I didn’t drink. Not a drop. I was a “young stud,” as they used to say. Two-hundred and twenty-five pounds, under 10% body fat at 5’10”, strong as a bear. If I had any sense of introspection back then, I would’ve realized I was actually a “young dud.” You don’t realize how ridiculous you were in your twenties until you reach well into your thirties.
But I digress.
I had this friend. He was a bit smaller than me but leaner. He drank like a fish. I remember joking with him, “Man, you keep drinking like that, then I’m going to have to get you a bra in a few months.” This was a reference to the common belief, still held, that alcohol will turn you into an estrogen-crazed soft belly.
He just laughed, held up his beer, and said, “Nah, man, I hit the gym today. You had your Cement Mixer 3000 shake, and this is my post-workout meal.” We laughed it off, and he kept on drinking like that every weekend. You know what happened? He never got much bigger, but he never grew any man-boobs either.
When you drink beer, wine, or spirits, the ethanol in those beverages is given priority by your body in metabolism. It stops pretty much everything else and goes to work in a four-step process that looks like this:
Ethanol → Acetaldehyde → Acetate → Acetyl-CoA
Acetate and acetyl-CoA can be used for energy by the body, but it’s costly. One gram of alcohol contains 7 calories, but like protein, its conversion into energy is inefficient, and 17 to 20% of its energy is lost. In other words, like protein, it has a very high thermogenic effect.
Also, like protein, and contrary to popular belief, alcohol is not easily converted to fat. That process is too costly. But all that acetate and acetyl-CoA showing up in the cells does signal to the body that no sugar or fat needs to be burned. So rather than a fat storer, alcohol is more of a fat-burning suppressor.
By now, you’re probably thinking, “Hold on! Are you saying alcohol is not as bad as I thought?”
What I’m saying is, there’s way more to the alcohol story you don’t know.
And yes, if used intelligently, it probably isn’t that bad.
Muscle, Body Fat and Performance
To build muscle and burn fat, you need to manage calories and hormones. Alcohol impacts both. When you drink, you consume calories. And under certain conditions, it can impact the hormones that help your body build muscle and stay lean.
Alcohol also has its own effects as a cellular messenger and, as such, impacts brain chemistry and muscle cell signaling. All this impacts building muscle, burning fat, and performing at the top level in sports.
Here’s the part that’s going to blow your mind. You may be able to use alcohol and still be able to get great results. That is if you know how to use it and what you’re using it for. If you’re gonna drink – and you probably are – the goal is to do it with minimal impact on your physique or performance.
Does Alcohol Halt Muscle Building?
You’ve probably heard alcohol crushes muscle building. And in this area, you are probably correct. My friend back in college may have stayed lean, but his alcohol habit may have been the reason he couldn’t put on size. Alcohol has several mechanisms that will negatively impact muscle protein synthesis and recovery from exercise. However, as long as you keep it moderate, you may be safe.
Alcohol has these effects on muscle metabolism: raises myostatin, decreases glycogen resynthesis, decreases post-exercise inflammation (this is a bad thing), suppresses exercise-induced mTOR (likely by reducing cellular phosphatidic acid), and it may impair insulin and IGF-1 signaling. If you’re not a biochemistry buff, all this equals BAD for muscle.
However, there does seem to be some caveats. Matthew J. Barnes published an excellent review in the June 2014 issue of Sports Medicine shows some very clear rules for alcohol and highlights several studies you’ll want to know about.
In one study, Barnes gave subjects 1g/kg alcohol or a equal volume of a non-alcoholic beverage. These drinks were consumed 30 minutes after having them complete 300 eccentric reps for the quads (ouch!).
So, basically there was a group drinking a ton of booze and another group getting their swerve on with a jug of Tropicana (the control group drank orange juice).
Both groups were trashed 36 and 60 hours after the workout in terms of strength in isometric (holding), concentric (raising), eccentric (lowering) contractions. But the alcohol group’s muscles had a much worse hangover. They performed 22%, 12% and 15% percent worse in those three measures compared to the OJ group.
To make this more tangible for you, and so you can understand how much booze was consumed, 1g/kg is 1g/2.2pounds. That equates to about 80g of alcohol for a 180-pound person. And since the average alcoholic drink (4-5oz wine, 12oz beer, 1.5oz spirits) has about 14g of alcohol in it, if my math is right, that’s about six alcoholic drinks.
So the study results are about what you’d expect, right? But here’s the part that you’ll love if you like to drink. Barnes did a similar study where he pitted 1g/kg alcohol consumption against .5g/kg alcohol consumption. And that showed once again that the 1g/kg alcohol level torpedoed muscle recovery, but the .5g/kg alcohol consumption had no effect.
So for that same 180-pound man, six drinks crushed him. But three drinks, and he stayed in the clear. That’s a pretty useful rule of thumb if you ask me. And this same threshold level of .5g/kg alcohol is backed up on other studies showing higher levels negatively impact rehydration metabolism.
How Does Drinking Affect Performance?
There are some general guidelines as it pertains to recovery from athletic events. It may shock you to learn that athletes who drink post-competition don’t seem to be all that impacted by it.
My favorite study on this was done on a bunch of rugby players. Rugby guys just look like they can drink, don’t they?
In this study, these guys drank on average 20 standard drinks. That’s about 3g/kg or three times the amount we were talking about in the Barnes studies. In other words, these guys got trashed after their match.
Guess what happened two days later when they showed up for practice?
They performed at top level like nothing ever happened!
Based on this and a few other studies in the performance area, if your liver doesn’t explode, you’ll probably be able to perform just fine after a few days. To be on the safe side, though, I’d take those days off.
How Does Beer and Wine Affect Fat Loss?
When we get into alcohol and fat loss, things get a bit tricky. In this realm, we have to look at calories, endocrine effects (which impact muscle too), and the context in which alcohol is consumed.
Let’s review what we already know. The biochemistry of alcohol metabolism says that it has a very high thermic effect, just like protein.
It’s also costly energetically for alcohol to be stored. When acetate and acetyl-CoA build-up, this shuts down the burning of other fuels like carbs and fats.
Studies support this.
When carbs or fat are replaced calorie-for-calorie with alcohol, there’s no fat-storing effect. Some of the research even hints there may be a weight loss effect in the same way that subbing protein in place of fat and carbs might have.
Another thing we have to look at is how alcohol impacts food intake. This seems to be individualized, with some suffering from a “disinhibition effect” and others not. By disinhibition, I mean that people’s natural control mechanisms to regulate the amount of food they eat is reduced.
So, just as people become uninhibited when they drink and say all types of crazy stuff they wouldn’t say sober; others can eat all kinds of food they may not eat when they’re sober.
This impact on appetite may vary with the type of alcohol consumed too.
There are a few rules here to know. Beer is bitter, and bitter compounds release GLP-1, which is a hunger-suppressing compound. Beer also seems to lower cortisol in the short run and in lower doses.
Higher doses may have the reverse effect.
This is important because we now know cortisol is involved in hunger and cravings, and switches off the motivation centers in the brain while amping up the reward centers. This may also be related to the hops in beer which, as an herb, has a sedating quality.
Red wine contains histamine, which raises cortisol. So we assume this would mean increased appetite. Spirits and white wine have neither the bitter compounds nor the histamine content of beer and red wine, so it would be difficult to speculate the effects.
A study out of the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior by Dr. Anna Kokavec shows exactly what we’d predict. Beer lowers cortisol and has a short-term appetite suppressing effect. Red wine raises cortisol fairly quickly and stimulates the appetite faster too. White wine was similar to beer. Spirits were not looked at in this study.
It does seem to be clear that any alcohol will raise cortisol eventually. The effects just seem to be time dependent in the case of beer, and impacted by amount as well. We now know cortisol has some impact on appetite, but it also plays a role in workout recovery. You don’t want cortisol high in either scenario.
Alcohol also seems to impact brain chemistry which is known to impact hunger and cravings. It raises dopamine and lowers serotonin. Dopamine is associated with desire and reward. It raises adrenaline and also lowers melatonin. This can negatively impact sleep, which is highly correlated with increased hunger and cravings.
A research report out of the journal Appetite gives us the following points related to alcohol intake taken before meals. All alcohol increases food intake, but the strength of this effect depended on the drink consumed.
The breakdown from this study, plus my extrapolation of a few others, goes like this:
Beer & White Wine < Red Wine < Mixed Drinks
Testosterone and Other Hormones
And what about the reported effects alcohol has on testosterone, estrogen, and other hormones? This seems to depend on the amount and context in which the alcohol is consumed. Again, the threshold level of .5g/kg comes up in the research. Alcohol intake at this level seems to have little impact on testosterone at all.
Alcohol may impact you differently depending on what you do.
Consuming alcohol after exhaustive endurance exercise definitely exaggerates the lowered testosterone levels typically seen in this type of activity. The study showing this used 1.5g/kg. That’s about eight or nine drinks for our theoretical 180-pound man.
But when drinking occurs after weight training at levels of 1.09gkg (about five or six drinks), both free and total testosterone levels are actually elevated. Could my college buddy have been correct about his post-workout beer habit?
By the way, most research on women seems to suggest alcohol may raise testosterone levels a bit. And if you understand female physiology, this is not a great thing, especially for their midsections.
When it comes to testosterone, the rules seem to be:
- Keep alcohol consumption light (less than three drinks).
- If you’re going to drink more, do it after weight training.
- Alcohol after cardio is not a great idea.
HGH and Estrogen
Alcohol also lowers HGH, but it really doesn’t seem to impact estrogen the way we once thought. A three-week intervention on men and post-menopausal women showed once again that the .5g/kg alcohol level (about 30-40g alcohol in this study) had no impact on circulating estrogen.
And two other studies I looked at using 1.5g/kg alcohol, and 1.75g of alcohol didn’t seem to impact estrogen either. Surprised? So was I. It seems that if anyone is going to be impacted by increased estrogen as it relates to alcohol, it’s women and not men.
Obviously, an entire book could be written on this subject. The research is confusing and contradictory at times, and more studies need to be done. But we can make some general points.
- When including alcohol at meals, avoid carbs and fat. Stick to protein and veggies. You’ll ramp up the thermic effect of the meal and avoid storing those fat and carb caps.
- When choosing your alcohol, go with beer and white wine. They seem to have a better impact on appetite.
- Avoid mixed drinks. The alcohol plus sugar means you’re likely to store that sugar plus you’ll drink more.
- Alcohol intake under .5g/kg may be the threshold to keep you safe from any negative effects related to muscle wasting, fat gain, endocrine dysfunction and performance issues. (Yes, both types of performance issues!)
- Alcohol after cardio may not be a great idea.
- Alcohol after weight training may be the best time to drink, but keep your intake under 1g/kg.
- As long as you’re doing most other things right and not drinking yourself into a stupor nightly, your worries of man-boobs and shriveled testicles are likely overblown.
Final point: Alcohol is a non-nutritive calorie source. It’ll drain your levels of B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium and others. This can put you at risk for what’s known as long-latency diseases or issues. This is when the metabolism suffers slowly over time due to poor nutrition. So, any time you drink, make sure you supplement with a good quality multiple vitamin and mineral supplement.
- Barnes MJ. Alcohol: Impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes. July 2014;44(7):909-919. PubMed/24748461
- Bianco, et al. Alcohol consumption and hormonal alterations related to muscle hypertrophy: a review. Nutrition & Metabolism. June 2014;11:26. PubMed/24932207
- Heikkinen, et al. The combined effect of alcohol and physical exercise on serum testosterone, luteinizing hormone and cortisol in males. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. June 1996;20(4):711-716. PubMed/8800389
- Kokavec, A., Lindner, A., Ryan, J.E., & Crowe, S.F. (2009). Ingesting alcohol prior to food can alter the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Pharmacology, Biochemistry & Behavior, 93, 170-176. PubMed/19447127
- Raben, et al. Meals with similar energy densities but rich in protein, fat, carbohydrate, or alcohol have different effects on energy expenditure and substrate metabolism but not on appetite and energy intake. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. January 2003;77(1):91-100. PubMed/12499328
- Yeomans MR. Short term effects of alcohol on appetite in humans. Effects of context and restrained eating. Appetite. December 2010;55(3):565-573. PubMed/20851724
- ZakhariS. Overview: how is alcohol metabolized by the body? Alcohol Research & Health. 2006;29(4):245-254. PubMed/17718403