Many athletes may wonder to what extent drinking alcohol affects strength training. In a recent study in Nutrition & Metabolism, researchers looked at the current evidence to find out just what alcohol does to athletes.
Alcohol in Athletic Culture
Alcohol is a complicated part of athletic culture. Sports themselves are a social activity by nature, and so is alcohol consumption. As a result, sometimes the two go hand in hand. In fact, in another article I wrote here a while back, I discussed a bit of research that found that strength in student athletes was positively correlated with alcohol consumption.
The correlation between alcohol consumption and athletics doesn’t end at the social level, either. I have heard several stories, whether true or old wives’ tales, of Olympic lifters and other strength and power athletes consuming alcohol as a means of improving blood flow post-workout. In other words, some people may even use alcohol as a recovery agent.
Now, let’s not get carried away. Yes, there’s a history of alcohol consumption among athletes, but let’s not forget the age-old adage: correlation is not necessarily causation. Being social might make us better athletes and make it more likely to drink, but that doesn’t mean booze should replace protein shakes after the gym.
Effects on Protein Synthesis
In the Nutrition & Metabolism review, researchers looked for every study they could find regarding muscle building and alcohol so they could put them all together and report the results. They found 106 total studies that fit their criteria, but these studies covered a broad range of topics. The researchers noted that in some areas the available information was scant, probably due to the ethical problems with performing alcohol-related research.
So let’s take a look at what they found. The first important finding was in relation to protein turnover. Protein turnover is the sum total of the creation of new proteins, minus the breakdown of old proteins in the muscle. If you have more of the former (protein synthesis) than the latter (protein degredation), you will get bigger muscles.
It appears as though alcohol does affect this process. About midway through the protein synthesis-yielding mTOR pathway, alchohol has an inhibiting effect. While it doesn’t seem to directly increase degradation, it will still change turnover for the worse.
Even more problematic is that the reduction of protein synthesis seems most dramatic in type II muscle fibers. These are the fibers with the most potential for growth. Some studies show as much as a thirty-percent reduction in synthesis.
Hormonal Response to Alcohol
Hormonally, alcohol consumption has major negative effects on growth and luteinizing hormones. Both of these types of hormones are related to muscle growth. Growth hormone is also associated with fat loss. Alcohol also increases the stress hormone cortisol, although the exact mechanism is unclear.
Finally, a low dose of alcohol might actually increase testosterone levels a little. However, this result doesn’t hold with binge drinking. Beginning with about five glasses of average-strength beer consumed by a 150lb man, testosterone levels drop. More alcohol makes the problem worse. That’s only the acute effect too. With the reduction of luteinizing hormone, testosterone will probably be lower in the long term, even with a low dose.
So there you have it. Alcohol presents a detriment to muscle building, so abstain whenever possible. If you feel that alcohol consumption is still worthwhile on occasion in social situations, the less alcohol the better.
1. Bianco et al. “Alcohol consumption and hormonal alterations related to muscle hypertrophy: a review” Nutrition & Metabolism 2014, 11:26
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