We’ve heard time and again that alcohol will ruin our gym gains. But, is there any truth in it? Here’s what you need to know…
The first rule of fitness, or so many will have you believe, is to avoid drinking alcohol if you don’t want to undo all the effort you put into working out and whipping up nutrient-dense meals. And, it makes sense; we know that a high intake of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of certain illnesses, and we also know that alcohol is a diuretic, which can trigger dehydration (never ideal, but especially not when you’re very active). There’s also evidence to suggest that heavy alcohol intake (we’re talking seven or so beers within the space of around three hours) can interfere with the metabolic process which helps the body to build muscle by reducing protein synthesis.
But, despite the wealth of research which makes it abundantly clear that drinking to excess is not a health-promoting behaviour (for anyone – not just those keen on building physical fitness), the same can’t be said for moderate drinking. While there’s still not much known about the impact a couple of drinks has on muscle mass, according to Colleen Deane, lecturer in muscle cell biology at the University of Southampton and Philip J Atherton, professor in clinical, metabolic and molecular physiology at the University of Nottingham, there’s reason to believe that having a couple of post-workout bevvies at brunch is relatively innocuous.
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Writing for The Conversation, they point to one study, which found that liver protein synthesis rates were not negatively impacted after drinking the equivalent of two beers. A higher volume of alcohol (the equivalent of five beers), however, did have an effect – indicating that our bodies have a bit of an alcohol threshold. In moderate amounts, we experience barely any negative side effects but once we surpass our threshold, alcohol can interfere with many of our bodily processes.
Not much is known about why, exactly, alcohol may have an impact on muscle mass when consumed in high volumes, but research indicates it could be because it suppresses the anabolic response in muscle which may, as a result, impair recovery and adaptation to training.
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It also could have something to do with testosterone production, one of the hormones which supports the building of muscle. While some research indicates that a moderate amount of alcohol can actually increase testosterone levels (and, therefore, increase muscle protein synthesis), other studies found that a high consumption of alcohol was associated with reduced testosterone levels. It appears that whichever way you cut it: alcohol in excess is a no-no, but in moderate amounts may actually be… fine.
It’s worth noting, though, that alcohol impacts every person differently, and it’s important to pay attention to physical markers of your personal alcohol threshold. Drinking alcohol can increase dehydration, and can impact sleep quality too. These two things alone may have an impact on your muscle gains, as you may alter the intensity of your workout or experience dips in performance as a result.
The takeaway, though? Totally OK, where muscle gains are concerned, to have a post-run bevvy if that’s what you enjoy. The key is to understand your threshold, and perhaps start with a glass of water before moving onto the hard stuff.
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