Think Before You Drink: Five Reasons Athletes Should Avoid Overindulgence in Alcohol

Everyone has reasons to celebrate, and indulging in adult beverages is a common way to do so. However, if your body is your machine, it deserves to be treated with utmost care and quality nutrition to optimize performance, especially pre- or mid-season. As an athlete, there are metabolic, recovery, and performance-related reasons for NOT overindulging in acute, or chronic alcohol consumption. No matter what season you're in, it's your season to be wise. Here are some details why alcohol may inhibit your performance:

1.     Alcohol Is a Toxin, So It’s Metabolized First.

Alcohol is considered toxic in the body, so when ingested, the body will expend initial energy to metabolize it first in an attempt to eliminate it from the body. Unfortunately, alcohol is also full of non-nutritional calories; consumed alongside the rest of your daily food intake results in caloric surplus, potentially undermining your hard-earned body composition goals. Additionally, as alcohol is oxidized, it creates more toxins in the form of endogenous reactive oxygen species (ROS), also known as free radicals, which can multiply and cause cellular and tissue damage if adequate antioxidant activity isn’t available to combat the free-radical damage. Read on for issues in the intestines with alcohol consumption.

2.     Alcohol is Dehydrating.

When we drink alcohol, one effect is inhibition of the secretion of vasopressin, also known as antidiuretic hormone (ADH) by the pituitary gland, which helps control the amount of water that is excreted by the kidneys through urination. Water is an essential nutrient, and if alcohol is replacing part of your water intake, further dehydration can occur. Depending on your hydration status prior to drinking, hydration levels could have an impact on both alcohol tolerance and processing, but it doesn’t mean that extra hydration will erase the effects of alcohol in the system. Low cellular hydration levels are associated with negatively altered protein turnover; amino acid, carbohydrate, and fatty acid metabolism; ammonia clearance (a byproduct of exercise linked to fatigue); and plasma membrane transport. Dehydration also contributes to cellular acidification, which is pro-inflammatory, and can inhibit recovery from both training and competition.

3.     Alcohol Increases Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage, Slows Healing and Adaptation.

Many athletes aren’t aware that strenuous exercise itself creates endogenous ROS (free radicals) from tissue damage, which is a normal part of the overall exercise adaptation process. However, studies show that ingesting alcohol after exercise, especially those involving eccentric contractions, results in decrements in maximum force production, both in single effort and repeated efforts, with decrements peaking at 36 hours post exercise. Furthermore, the alcohol slows the normal immune responses to healing tissue, which means that the damage done sticks around longer, and recovery is slower, as well. Potential mechanisms behind this is the combined ROS created by the exercise (evoking a positive response) with the ROS created by the oxidized alcohol (evoking a negative response) promotes a adverse environment for muscular adaptation. The research indicates that athletes participating in intense or heavy training models or competition, along with even just moderate alcohol consumption, can expect slower recovery and reduced force production in subsequent training sessions or performance measures. Other research has suggested that alcohol consumption also slows healing of bone fractures and skin wounds, indicating that sport-related injury and alcohol would not support recovery or return to play.

There are additional localized and central modifications in the neuromuscular system with alcohol use, including reduced voluntary contractile capability, reduced motor cortex responsiveness and central fatigue. With the above mentioned ROS creation, and the circadian rhythm information below combined, skeletal muscle adaptation (which relies on a certain amount of endogenous ROS production to encourage growth) is hindered, as well, while the body deals with the extra oxidative stress.

4.     Alcohol Slows Reaction Time and Coordination.

Current research reveals that even moderate, regular alcohol consumption disrupts circadian rhythms, which involves our awake and sleep cycles and our organs’ daily metabolic cycles. In fact every organ and tissue has a circadian clock that needs rest and wake cycles for optimal function. Through alcohol’s gut permeability changes and alterations in melatonin production, inadequate rest cycles result in fatigue, decreased performance, blunted recovery, and reduced mental acuity.

According to research in clinically-controlled environments, those engaging in alcohol consumption (not just acutely, but chronic consumption) produced more errors and slower decision times in standard motor control tests. Imagine this effect in the uncontrolled and unpredictable competition or performance setting! In turn, both coordination and reaction time is negatively impacted, which can increase vulnerability to injury, and/or decrease performance in competition, when accuracy and timing may make the difference in a win or a loss.

5.     Alcohol Changes Intestinal Permeability and Nutrient Processing.

More specifically, alcohol changes the mucosal barrier in the intestines while it’s generating endotoxins within the gastrointestinal system at the same time. Those endotoxins are then released into the circulatory system through the portal vein, and travel to all the organs of the body. These toxins place an additional strain on the immune system and increase inflammatory processes, so less energy is available for sports performance while it’s being spent on clearing the body of the “bad” stuff. Furthermore, alcohol also increases gram-negative bacterial growth in the intestines, which are the types responsible for infections, and in combination with damaged mucosal barriers and permeability, the opportunity for infection increases, also inhibiting performance.

To summarize, alcohol affects the body in many ways that are implicated in decreased recovery, adaptation, and performance. The toxic nature of alcohol leads to impaired digestion and release of endotoxins into the system, resulting in impaired brain and nervous system function, impaired muscular response and recovery, and decreased performance. Disruption of circadian rhythms can be detrimental to many organ systems and brain functionality with motor control. And robbing cells of hydration needed to perform their many processes is also a performance liability. The bigger take-home message for you is that the increase in inflammation and toxic byproducts created by alcohol use requires precious energy to combat and overcome – energy that could better be used to improve and maintain performance measures and rise above the competition when the moment counts. Your body uses that energy to perform triage on the toxins before addressing positive exercise adaptation. So if you’d rather have your energy dedicated to being and performing your best, think twice about whether or not that short (or longer) term indulgence is worth the cost to your game.


References

Barnes, M.J., Mundel, T., & Stannard, S.R. (2012). The effects of acute alcohol consumption and eccentric muscle damage on neuromuscular function.  Applied Physiology and Nutrition Metabolism, 37, 63-71.

Forsyth, C. B., Voigt, R. M., Burgess, H. J., Swanson, G. R., & Keshavarzian, A. (2015). Circadian rhythms, alcohol and gut interactions. Alcohol, 49(4), 389-398. doi:10.1016/j.alcohol.2014.07.021

Haussinger, D. (1996). The role of cellular hydration in the regulation of cell function. British Journal of Biochemistry, 331, 697-710.

Powers, S. K., Duarte, J., Kavazis, A. N., & Talbert, E. E. (2010). Reactive oxygen species are signalling molecules for skeletal muscle adaptation. Experimental Physiology, 95(1), 1-9. doi:10.1113/expphysiol.2009.050526

Prickett, C. D., Lister, E., Collins, M., Trevithick-Sutton, C. C., Hirst, M., Vinson, J. A., ... Trevithick, J. R. (2004). Alcohol: friend or foe? Alcoholic beverage hormesis for cataract and atherosclerosis is related to plasma antioxidant activity. Nonlinearity in Biology, Toxicology, Medicine, 2(4), 353-370. doi:10.1080/15401420490900272

Purohit, V., Bode, J. C., Bode, C., Brenner, D. A., Choudhry, M. A., Hamilton, F., ... Turner, J. R. (2008). Alcohol, intestinal bacterial growth, intestinal permeability to endotoxin, and medical consequences: Summary of a symposium. Alcohol, 42349-361. doi:10.1016/j.alcohol.2008.03.131

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