Did. you know that alcohol is the most widely consumed intoxicant on our planet? Or that collectively we spend over a trillion dollars each year to enjoy its effects?
Given the widespread nature and long storied history of drinking, it’s surprising how many of us remain unsure about the true relationship between alcohol, health and overall well-being.
Throughout history, alcohol has been used as both an elixir and a poison – and though it wouldn’t be correct to call it a healthy product per se, studies have shown that moderate drinking can be good for the heart, gall bladder and circulatory system.
The question is, where do we draw the line where alcohol’s benefits outweigh its risks?
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, that line is passed when women consume more than 7 drinks per week or men consume more than 14 drinks per week. In spite of the fact that these numbers sound small, research does show that alcohol consumption in excess of this amount statistically puts the body at greater risk of medical, relationship and emotional costs.
Therefore finding a balanced approach to drinking is the key to enjoying the pleasures while avoiding the pitfalls of excess.
First though, here are five ways that consuming alcohol can disrupt your fitness routine:
Since we are largely made up of water, hydration is essential to our good health. However, as a diuretic, alcohol increases urine production, which leads to dehydration, a condition that adversely affects the body’s ability to regulate temperature, transport nutrients, and remove waste efficiently. That’s not ideal while exercising naturally…
Muscles function optimally when they are hydrated, so when the body is dehydrated, it loses strength, coordination, and overall performance because the muscles don’t work efficiently. A lack of water can cause early fatigue, which means the body will not be able to maintain the usual level of workout intensity. Muscle fatigue can put the body at a heightened risk of injury too. It will be more likely to stumble, or trip while running – and since the consumption of alcohol can disrupt the body’s electrolyte balance, it can cause muscle cramping, weakness, irregular heartbeat, and in severe cases, even seizures.
The sensation of thirst isn’t a reliable indicator of your hydration status either – in fact, feeling thirsty often means that dehydration has already set in. This can be particularly dangerous if your body loses more than two percent of its fluids, as then it can manifest into more alarming symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and gastrointestinal issues.
Another factor many people don’t consider, is that after you finish a drinking session, you still need to increase your bodies fluid intake, since fluid loss continues long after your last drink (which is why you might wake up hours later with a dry mouth).
The human body cannot adapt to dehydration either, so rehydration is crucial before, during and after even small amounts of alcohol is consumed.
2. Sleep Disruption
Even a modest amount of alcohol, such as a small glass of wine or beer, can interfere with sleep.
Alcohol impedes the body’s ability to recuperate from the physical strain induced by exercise, because as a central nervous system depressant, it slows brain function and induces sedative effects, leading to feelings of sleepiness and drowsiness – effects that are linked with poor sleep quality and duration, particularly when consumed in excess.
Despite ongoing studies, the relationship between alcohol and sleep is still not really understood by experts either. Most agree that consuming substantial amounts of alcohol before bed can cause a person to fall asleep faster than normal. However, the problem comes later on in the night when the alcohol is being metabolized.
Alcohol consumed is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and small intestine, and metabolized by liver enzymes. This slow process causes a continued circulation of excess alcohol in the body – the impact of which varies depending on factors such as the quantity and speed it was consumed, and the persons age, sex and body type.
Sleep interruption can negatively affect muscle recovery and hormone regulation, both crucial components of post-exercise restoration. So if you go on a big run, having a bender the same night will have you feeling doubly sore the next day.
3. Empty Calories
Alcohol provides almost the same amount of energy as fat, but unlike food calories, it holds zero nutritional benefit. These empty calories quickly add up and contribute to significant and fast weight gain if consumed excessively.
The body prioritizes breaking down and metabolizing alcohol over other processes when we drink it, this means if we exercise especially to burn fat, we can hinder our progress in achieving weight loss or fitness goals by drinking. If mixed drinks contain juice, soft drinks, or syrups – they will be even higher in calories, increasing the likelihood of weight gain.
Drinking also affects the hormones that control your appetite, making you less inhibited and more likely to make unhealthy choices after having a drink (e.g. eating a kebab on the way home from the pub rather than making a healthy salad), or over-eating while drinking with friends.
4. Impaired Cognitive and Motor Functions
Drinking alcohol affects coordination, reaction time, and decision-making abilities – which can make engaging in any form of exercise while under the influence dangerous due to negatively affected motor skills, balance, coordination, and reaction times.
It has been shown that long-term heavy alcohol consumption can also lead to neurodegeneration, particularly in the cortex and the hippocampal regions of the brain (areas which support memory and learning). Heavy drinkers experience less neuron density, altered glucose metabolism, reduced blood flow, and even a diminution of brain size, which can lead to reduced performance and motivation, potentially derailing consistency and progress in fitness goals.
5. Bone and Muscle Health
Alcohol is able to thin the blood, which negatively impacts injury recovery, particularly in soft tissues and bone fractures. Thin blood causes an increased flow to the injury site, leading to heightened swelling and toxin accumulation. This not only delays healing but also prompts the formation of scar tissue, necessitating prolonged rehabilitation and making it more challenging to achieve the desired results from training.
Alcohol’s pain-masking properties can even lead to further injury by unknowingly straining an already affected body part, worsening the damage. In addition, this numbing effect can deter a person from seeking early medical assistance, further extending the healing process of an injury.
For bone health, alcohol consumption contributes to the onset of osteoporosis and inhibits the body’s ability to absorb vital nutrients like calcium, while disrupting the production of vitamin D, both crucial for bone health. This can lead to brittle bones and a higher propensity for fractures, with prolonged recovery times that are often worsened by malnutrition.
Research shows alcohol consumption negatively impacts hormonal levels that are vital for bone health.
- In men, chronic alcohol use can lead to reduced testosterone levels, a hormone essential for cell growth.
- Women, on the other hand, can experience decreased estrogen levels, leading to reduced bone strength.
Alcohol can also escalate cortisol hormone levels, often referred to as the ‘stress hormone’, resulting in an increase in bone breakdown and a decrease in bone formation and the process of bone remodeling – the continual process of old bone replacement by new bone.
Understanding Personal Limits
The key with drinking, as with many things in life, is understanding personal limits.
The saying “everything in moderation” is particularly relevant in regards to alcohol consumption. Drinking in itself is not inherently bad; in fact, and in moderate quantities, alcohol actually has some pretty great health benefits. Red wine, for example, is known to be rich in antioxidants like flavonoids and resveratrol, which can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Consuming alcohol responsibly however, requires an understanding of how the effects of alcohol can equally disrupt physical, emotional and mental health too.
Each person’s relationship with alcohol is unique, and for most of us drinking is just a great way to socialise and spend time with friends – but not everyone. For some people, drinking instead causes strained relationships with friends, family, and colleagues, especially when it leads to behavioral changes and irresponsible actions (such as driving under the influence).
While this post may seem a bit of a buzz kill, it’s not all bad news. If you drink moderately and exercise regularly you can actually counter many of the numerous health complications related to alcohol , including heart disease, increased risk of certain types of cancer, and cognitive impairments.
By prioritizing mindfulness in your drinking habits, it is possible to enjoy the positive effects and minimize the potential risks associated while still being able to appreciate and enjoy alcoholic beverages responsibly.
Making subtle changes to drinking habits is often all it takes to significantly improve health. These changes can include opting for drinks with lower alcohol content, setting personal limits on drinking, or designating specific days of the week as alcohol-free nights.
By incorporating such changes and increasing awareness and mindfulness in your drinking choices, you can bring about numerous benefits in your exercise routine, such as improved energy levels for exercise, better quality sleep, a strengthened immune system, and a sense of confidence that comes from being in control of your decisions.