"Here's to alcohol: the cause of, and answer to, all of life's problems."
- Matt Groening
With everything that you do, whether it is embark on a new fitness regimen or start a new diet, you should strive to understand that thing fully. To know the drawbacks and advantages of the behavior. That understanding is what will allow you to manipulate it and use it to your advantage while maximizing your potential.
So, in the spirit of manipulation, I feel the need to raise you up a little bit before I let you down completely. You know, like alcohol does when you can’t keep your shit together and you fall just a little too far off the wagon.
“Drinking a glass of wine per day has been shown to extend life and improve heart health. If you drink moderately, you can increase your social integration and adjustment. If you take a shot of whiskey right before you deadlift, it will increase your one rep max by over 50 lbs as long as you buy the right stuff.”
Ok, I made that last one up but the others were actual article titles and university study headlines. Which brings me to my main point; constantly searching for the health benefits of drinking alcohol is fucking ridiculous. Just like the notion that anything would ever increase your one rep max by 50 lbs except time spent picking up the bar.
It isn’t good for you and it’s not ever going to be. It won’t help you as an athlete to ingest a substance that your body has no physiological use for. That being said, as long as college students, a.k.a. the group of humans that drive research in this country are consuming an average of 34 gallons of alcohol each per year (true story,) than we are bound to a lifetime of searching for the silver lining in an empty abyss.
As a species, our relationship with the devil’s water has been complicated to say the least. Although drinking used to be popular during sporting events, (stories can be found of the Tour de France winner taking shots of whiskey before difficult climbs,) elite athletes have come to the clear realization that consumption of ethanol does nothing to better performance on the field or in the mountains. I presume that is why the Olympic village looks like a frat party as soon as the closing ceremonies begin. Four years of deprivation can cause a hell of a desire to partake.
On the other hand, it would be just as ridiculous not to acknowledge the fact that there are real social performance benefits to consuming the right amount. You can decrease social anxiety and reduce immediate stress associated with performance. Unfortunately, anyone that’s gone out on a Friday night understands that the “right amount” of booze is a slippery slope that turns into a cliff pretty quickly. Go even a shot too far and you’ll find the law of diminishing returns is not your friend. Kind of like the human that is bound to wake up next to you.
Most of us find ourselves drinking for social reasons and often times those needs are met. But what is happening physiologically? After all, you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have at least some sort of goal physically.
Drinking alcohol, even a drop, begins to block the fat burning process in your body. That means that even when you are going ham on your skinnygirl margs, and your vodka waters, you are still forcing your body to place every calorie that you eat while drinking to be stored directly in your waistline. Combine that with the fact alcohol severely interrupts your circadian rhythm (your sleep cycle,) and that means that,
Nothing you do or eat will aid in recovery or building muscle. AKA, you are not going to see nearly any return on your training that day, or the next day. How long this impaired ability to improve goes on will be in direct correlation to how much or how long you drink.
And if you aren’t drinking a zero calorie drink, i.e. wine, mixed drinks etc... than most likely you are looking at extreme glycolytic spikes (rise in blood sugar) which once again, will be processed like a carbohydrate in your body and stored as fat.
It also blocks your body's ability to create new muscle which mean that all of the gains from your 12 ounce curls have nowhere to go. To the love handles it is! Alcohol also has long term effects (up to two hours per ounce) on your cerebral cortex which isn’t a huge deal as long as you don’t want to think clearly, remember anything or learn anything new. The mental fog that you feel when you are hungover is physiologically real. In essence, your mind loses its plasticity and ability to function at full capacity.
Finally, the heart health myth. Yes, moderate alcohol consumption such as a glass of wine per day (not what you are doing on a Friday night,) has been shown to increase HDL (good cholesterol.) But that’s only if you are lucky enough to be the 15% of the population that has a genetic profile affecting HDL. Compare that with the fact that just two drinks per day increases your risk of Atrial fibrillation by 17% which gives you the pleasure of quadrupling your risk of stroke and tripling your risk of heart failure and you definitely have a winning recipe. As long as you aren’t into playing the odds.
The last thing that I want to do here is preach. Life is about balance and this is part of it. I just want you to be aware of the benefits or lack-thereof, as you navigate the waters between performance and fun. This article isn’t about trying persuade you to stop doing something that you like to do or enjoy doing but rather to help you wade through prevalent marketing and articles that are misleading. That way you are acutely aware of the side effects when you go too hard for too long.
Furthermore, anything in life is usually hurt by going to extremes and it has been my experience that one can easily find themselves going to extremes as soon as they begin to justify what they are doing. The same tired argument of moderate drinking being healthy is misleading at best and complete bull shit at worst.