Alcohol, often the focal point of a social gathering, the highlight of the weekend for some people who indulge in a glass of wine; for gym buffs, bodybuilders or those looking to gain some lean muscle though, it’s often considered a bane to their social life. There’s often the perception that it’s either protein or pints, i.e. that you can’t have both a social life and achieve peak muscle growth. In this article, discover the effects of alcohol on muscle growth – could low alcohol be a solution?
We know that consumption of alcohol should be in moderation as it could be considered a liquid cheat meal and does contribute to overall calorie and macronutrient intake. More concerning though is the fact that excessive alcohol consumption is linked to a range of negative health impacts including increased risk of cancer, elevated blood pressure, strokes and behavioural changes to name but a few.
But what exactly are the effects of alcohol on bodybuilding and muscle growth? With the advent of healthy alcoholic drinks and alcohol-free drinks becoming increasingly prevalent, could this upcoming niche provide a solution for gym-enthusiasts who also want to maintain a social life?
Does alcohol affect muscle growth?
While the effects of alcohol consumption on muscle growth have been studied, the majority of papers have assessed heavy drinking as opposed to moderate alcohol consumption, so this is something to bear in mind when considering the below studies.
Alcohol consumption has been shown to attenuate the benefits of dietary protein consumption in males and females with a normal muscle mass baseline. Separate studies also observed reduce protein synthesis in rats and additionally an impaired ability to build new muscle.
Muscle synthesis is peaked under hydrated conditions. It’s evident that an optimal workout is heavily reliant on adequate hydration, especially during a workout as dehydration increases the feeling of strain on the body. Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it increases the production of urine and consequently can lead to dehydration – a fundamental contributor to your hangover. What’s more, a lack of adequately hydrated muscle cells leads to depleted muscle anabolism.
Studies have also investigated the impact of alcohol consumption and optimal nutrient intake on muscle synthesis. The results evidenced a partial rescue of muscle growth when coincided with prime meal intake; (24% reduction in protein synthesis when alcohol was ingested with protein; 37% reduction when alcohol was consumed with carbohydrates). However, reduced muscle anabolism was still prevalent when compared with participants at rest.
It’s also been demonstrated that alcohol consumption post-workout leads to increased weakness following eccentric exercise in a male study group. Performance decline was observed as high as 44.8% 36 hours following acute alcohol consumption. The reduced performance was linked to muscle damage as opposed to the alcohol consumption itself.
Testosterone is a horomone which promotes muscle growth. In a limited study, a group of males and females had their testosterone levels assessed following moderate alcohol consumption over a 6-week period. They were provided with 40g (males) and 30g (females) of beer per day to consume with their dinner. This equates to 2-3 drinks per day.
The effects of consuming alcohol over a period of 3 weeks demonstrated a 6.8% reduction in testosterone for males and no observed effect on females. In essence, the impact could be considered limited, assuming many fitness enthusiasts are unlikely to consume 2-3 beers for such a duration as was completed in the study.
In a separate study on males, 10-16 hours following consumption of approximately 10 beers, testosterone levels were observed to decline 23%. The assumption here would be that timing of workouts should be factored in based on alcohol consumption. Furthermore, drinking pre and post-workout should be avoided.
Are low alcohol drinks an option?
The world of fitness and health is becoming a growing market. Alcohol beverage companies have identified this trend and have retaliated to the resistance of alcohol consumption in true fighting form. In a bid to tap into this exponentially growing health movement, many vendors are branching into a new industry of low and no alcohol drinks. Consequently, we’re finally seeing a growing range of both healthy alcoholic drinks and alcohol-free drinks.
Of course, some alcohol industries latched on to the popularity of healthy alcoholic drinks for women who were calorie-conscious by launching some of the lowest calorie alcoholic drinks. Examples include Bud Light which was launched in the 80s, and was preceded by Coors Light launched back in the 70s. These low calorie alcohol drinks were also lower in alcohol, and to this day are still widely recognised as some of the leading alcoholic beverages on the market.
The introduction of low and no-alcohol beverages provides an avenue for healthy enthusiasts, bodybuilders and people looking to gain lean muscle but don’t want to encounter the negative effects of depleted muscle synthesis. That said, accountability will still be needed to incorporate calorie and macronutrient intake, however it’s a small price to pay. If you are opting to socialise, consuming a non-alcoholic beverage after a workout could be considered ideal timing as the body needs fuel to recover from the workout.
Tips to minimise alcohol impact protein synthesis
The effects of alcohol on muscle synthesis have been examined in both moderate and heavy drinkers.
Consumption of correct nutrition, with particular emphasis on protein, following ingestion of alcohol can minimise the depletion of skeletal muscle in the body. So while you may have indulged in a few drinks after your workout, the best response is to maintain correct nutrition and not let alcohol hinder your judgement!
It’s evident the impacts of alcohol consumption can cause increased damage before and after a workout. Ideally, avoiding alcohol around these times is the optimum solution.
Adequate hydration will play a key role in minimising alcohol-induced dehydration and dehydration-induced muscle depletion.
Utilisation of healthy alcohol drinks and, in particular, non-alcoholic beers and wines can certainly help limit your alcohol intake into the blood stream and consequently, the degree of muscle breakdown than has been observed by high blood-alcohol levels.
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Finally, instead of trying to completely eliminate alcohol from your life, try to achieve a healthy balance by only consuming a few drinks every now and then as opposed to heavy drinking sessions.
- Evidence is still somewhat inconclusive regarding moderate alcohol consumption and muscle depletion
- Alcohol should be avoided before and after workouts
- Acute alcohol consumption adversely affects muscle growth and can contribute to muscle catabolism
- Prioritise optimum nutrient consumption, even when drinking alcohol
- Moderation is paramount to minimise the adverse effects of alcohol on protein synthesis
- Choose drinks with a low alcohol volume, or better still, non-alcoholic drinks
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Legion, T. (2017). 6 Amazing Things That Happen When You Stop Drinking Alcohol. [online] Legion Athletics. Available at: https://legionathletics.com/what-happens-when-you-stop-alcohol/ [Accessed 2 Feb. 2020].
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