Updated: Jan 28
One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor! If you are lucky enough to have never experienced a hangover, you could add "the pain of a hangover" as a very good reason to avoid alcohol. Drinking alcohol is prevalent in many cultures where it is often served with food at meal times, but the culture of drinking to excess can lead to a host of health related issues.
In this article, you will find out:
why some drinks are more unhealthy than others
why regular and binge drinking is bad
the danger of mixers
how alcohol blunts fat burning and muscle gain
What is alcohol?
Purely speaking, an alcohol is a organic chemical compound in which the hydroxyl- functional group is bound to a carbon. These include:
- Methanol - used as an additive in gasoline
- Propan-2-ol - also known as rubbing alcohol
- Glycerol - a common sweetener and important component of triglycerides
- Erythritol, Xylitol, Sorbitol - common sweeteners used to replace sugar
Ethanol is the main type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks. It is predominantly made by fermenting sugar and is used as an antiseptic, a disinfectant and more commonly as a recreational drug.
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What happens when alcohol is ingested?
When alcohol enters the body it is transported to the liver where enzymes break it down into acetaldehyde; a highly toxic compound responsible for many hangover symptoms. It is then further broken down into acetic acid which is harmless to the body. Issues arise when we do not produce enough of the enzyme responsible for breaking down alcohol into acetaldehyde, something that varies from person to person. Since alcohol cannot be stored as glycogen, it is the bodies preferred fuel source once ingested and takes priority over other fuel sources which subsequently get stored as fat.
What happens if I drink too much?
High alcohol intakes increase the amount of calories you are consuming. Many do not know that 1g of alcohol = 7 calories (1). That is more calories per gram than protein and carbohydrates and with potentially far less nutrient density. This can decrease REM sleep, lower protein synthesis, reduce testosterone, lead to poor lifestyle and nutrition choices and make it harder to achieve a caloric deficit for fat loss or simply to maintain a healthy weight (2). In addition, even drinking moderate amounts regularly can raise total cholesterol which weakens the immune system and increase the risk of cancer (3).
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Which drinks are less healthy?
Poor quality alcohol is harder for the body to process; the liver, responsible for processing the impurities within the alcohol, has to work for longer and is damaged each time this happens. The gut also suffers, as acetaldehyde, the bi-product of alcohol metabolism, can affect nutrient absorption which is critical for good health. Many of the cheaper and lower quality options are also high in calories, sugar and gluten while containing little to no antioxidants. This prevents the body from burning body fat as fuel and increases the risk of health disease.
Why are mixers dangerous?
Avoid stimulants, fizzy drinks and sugary juices. Most mixers do more damage than the alcohol itself. In fact, fizzy drinks on their own are contributing to the ever-increasing level of obesity and other life threatening diseases so it is obvious how combining these mixers with alcohol can fuel disease (4). It is not only the shockingly high sugar content of these drinks which, combined with sugars from alcoholic sources, can have devastatingly bad effects on your health. The powerful substances which can be found within energy drinks which, when consumed in large doses regularly with or without alcohol, unnaturally stimulate the nervous system and placing a huge amount of strain on the brain and cardiovascular system (5). Many end up hospitalised when they drink too many spirits alongside these sugary drinks and while the body works tremendously hard to rid itself of the toxins, there is no chance of improving fat loss or physical and mental performance.
How does alcohol impair fat loss and muscle gain?
1. Increased fat storage and hormonal changes
Your fat stores will not be burned while alcohol is in your bloodstream. The body will only return to burning dietary fat, carbs or protein, or your body fat stores for energy once the body has been cleansed of ethanol. As a result, anything you eat between when you have your first drink and the time when ethanol has been cleared is almost definitely going to be stored as fat.
The more you drink, the slower the rate of muscle protein synthesis will be (6). Depending on how much you consume, this muscle building process can be limited for days which will obviously reduce the amount of muscle you can build (7). Additionally, cortisol levels go up while testosterone levels go down which will further reduce muscle development (8).
2. Dehydration and risk of injury
Drinking alcohol prevents the reabsorption of water via the kidneys which subsequently produce more urine. Dehydration also limits the amount of fluid and fuel which can be delivered to connective tissues. This can weaken key areas such as the Achilles and not only negatively affect the performance of those tissues during a workout, but if you injure yourself, muscle gain and fat loss can be affected by the changes you are forced to make to your training.
The risk of injury spikes during alcohol consumption and the effects alcohol has on your muscle control, posture, awareness and coordination can last until the following day (9). This means when you go to the gym the day after drinking, it may be more effective in the long term to reduce the difficulty of the exercises you perform as well as the duration (10).
3. Poor recovery
Alcohol relaxes your muscles and initially makes it easier to fall asleep, however, the quality of sleep will not be good. Once the body has cleared the ethanol from your blood, the fact that melatonin secretion was blunted will prevent the body from entering and remaining in a restful state of sleep (11). Growth hormone release is also inhibited which would normally have facilitated the process of building muscle and burning fat. In contrast, once you wake up, feelings of fatigue and being hungover become noticeable and often debilitating. Furthermore, following a night out with a workout to 'sweat it out' will require more motivation and will be far less enjoyable and effective (12).
Those who choose not to consume alcohol may not necessarily live longer, higher quality lives than those who do drink, however, when alcohol intake is not controlled, it can become an extremely dangerous substance where addiction is common and hard to recover from. Furthermore, the body can easily begin to suffer, where other than experiencing the various forms of a hangover, it is very difficult to realise and fully understand the extent of the damage until life threatening diseases have already developed. Drink sensibly, pace yourself and always think WHY you are having that next drink.
Visit Drinkaware.co.uk for more information about alcohol, or if you think you may have a problem with drinking alcohol.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.