We have all been told that alcohol causes fat gain, muscle loss, decreased protein synthesis, and decreased testosterone. I want to take a closer look at these claims, including the studies behind them (which are linked to the highlighted words below). We all bust our ass in the gym and we all deserve to know the true effect that alcohol consumption has on our body composition/strength. We all know “the athlete who sits at home while everyone else goes out for drinks.” Supposedly this behavior is in the name of performance, while I think that it may just be a bummer. I encourage you to have an open mind about the messages you’ve heard in the media as we dive into this topic a little deeper.
Alcohol and Insulin Resistance
Binge drinking has been directly linked to causing insulin resistance in rats. This means the body is not able to shuttle glucose and fat to the proper areas, i.e. muscle tissue. A decrease in glucose uptake can result in hyperglycemia, which is a by-product of type-2 diabetes. Let me make something very clear. This information is based on a study by researchers at the Diabetes Obesity and Metabolism Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York. This study was done on rats, not humans. They provided conclusive evidence that binge alcohol use was linked with higher levels of circulating glucose, which suggests insulin resistance. I don’t find this hard to believe, but the study is simply suggestive at best, considering humans and rats have very different physiology. Again, this is binge drinking, which is defined as large amounts of alcohol often consumed over a period of 2-3days. The take home here is: Do not get hammered and eat a bunch of fat and sugar simultaneously as the already damaging effects to the body may be pronounced by the high concentration of alcohol.
There are plenty more human studies that claim moderate alcohol consumption improves insulin sensitivity (opposite of insulin resistance) and improves glycemic control. For the athlete or gym enthusiast, this means more efficient nutrient shuttling resulting in a potential increase in muscle and decrease in fat. This could be a primary reason why studies are consistently showing that moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers. This information spits in the face of everything that I have been taught by the mainstream health community. Looking at the studies referenced below, it is almost certain that we are healthier consuming a moderate amount of alcohol than abstaining from it.
Alcohol and Fat Gain
Drinkers weigh less than non-drinkers, especially women. This is odd because alcohol is labeled as a relatively high 7.1 calories per gram. and is similar to dietary fat in terms of energy density. One theory is the affect of alcohol on appetite decreases long-term food consumption. Another is the previously mentioned increase in insulin sensitivity in moderate drinkers causing an improvement in nutrient partitioning resulting in fat loss. Alcohol acts similarly to carbs in that it suppresses fat oxidation (fat loss) so dietary fat is stored in fat cells easier. This is a result of the body reacting to insulin and not alcohol being metabolized into fat. The main culprit in fat storage resulting from alcohol consumption is the decrease in impulse control while under the influence. I am guilty of coming home after a night of drinking and pounding cookie dough and brownies until I pass out from a food coma.
Alcohol, HGH, and Testosterone
You may have heard about alcohol decreasing testosterone levels in men. The fact is, this is true, but it has been exaggerated to the point of distortion. In order for alcohol to lower testosterone by a significant amount, 120g of alcohol must be consumed. 120g of alcohol is about the equivalent to 10 shots of 80proof liquor. Testosterone was reduced by 23% for up to 16 hours after ingestion. Growth hormone secretion was “reduced” as “ethanol (alcohol) profoundly suppressed the pulsatile secretion of growth hormone.” There was also a notable increase in cortisol (+36%), which can increase fat storage. In a study examining the response to 70-80g of alcohol, no effect on testosterone was noted. Basically the media snagged a couple studies and made dramatic claims about the negative effect alcohol has on testosterone. This may have happened to you when you took 10 beer bongs with your freshman buddies at that one frat house. That lifestyle aside, this study has little merit in the “responsible adult” realm.
It is not all good news for the alcohol-consuming athlete. A study using rats showed alcohol to negatively effect protein synthesis, but no human studies have been found. Chronic alcoholics, however, have been shown to adopt a decreased rate of protein synthesis in the muscle. Moderation seems to be the underlying theme here. Also, alcohol is treated as a poison in the body and becomes “the priority fuel to be metabolized.” When you drink, your digestive juices turn all their energy into digesting the alcohol. All the other food in your stomach gets last priority.
-Moderate alcohol consumption increases insulin resistance, which can result in increased nutrient partitioning and other health benefits.
-Alcohol calories are not the culprit, your drunken trips to Taco Bell are.
-The negative effect on testosterone is not applicable to moderate drinkers. If you have a night of heavy drinking, expect your T levels to drop, along with your growth hormone, for the next day. Lets not make that a habit.
-Alcohol does have a negative effect on protein synthesis in alcoholics and rats. For the rest of us humans, the jury is still out.
-Alcohol does not directly cause fat gain but it can inhibit lipolysis. If you eat a bunch of crap (fat/sugar), while in an inhibited lipolysis state (drunk), you can negatively effect your body composition.
-Alcohol that is low in calories includes dry wines, rum (and other hard liquor), and sugar free mixes. Heavy beers and sweet wines should be saved for occasions.
-Don’t take this article as a green like to go be an idiot. Be safe and use your head.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10636266 (life expect)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20096714 (weigh less)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2128439 (Test and GH)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10642377 (hormones 70-80g)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1449559 (rat study)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11115785 (treated as poison)