Effects of Alcohol
Enjoying an alcoholic beverage is a luxury we have likely all experienced at some point in our lives. In our culture, we consume alcohol for many reasons. Celebrations, social events, pain relief and calming nerves are a few common occurrences. For some of us, alcohol is a part of our daily routine, while for others, exposure can be far and few between. However we choose to incorporate this libation, being aware of the potential health and performance risks will help us think deeper about its role in our lives.
Alcohol affects our brain through the blood brain barrier. It stimulates a region in the brain that releases dopamine, giving us a feeling of pleasure. When this reward pathway is stimulated often, it becomes reinforced and ingrained, making this pattern particularly hard to break. Alcohol interferes with the part of our brain associated with decision making, impulse control, motivation and problem solving. This part of the brain receives less neural stimulation and can even shrink with regular consumption of alcohol. Additionally, alcohol can cause a decrease in new brain cells, leading to a deficit in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory. These (among other) effects on the brain lead to massive consequences on our body, including physical performance.
A decrease in neuronal density and blood flow to the brain causes a decrease in glucose metabolism. When we ingest a toxin, we must then breakdown and move those toxins through our liver and out of our bodies. This process utilizes a multitude of nutrients and energy and backs up our “metabolism organ”, our liver. One of the nutrients depleted in this process is thiamine, or vitamin B1. A chronic deficiency in thiamine can result in early onset dementia. Along with plummeting nutrient stores and energy, our muscles also take a hit. Alcohol will impair muscle growth, diminishing protein synthesis, cause an increase in dehydration and prevent muscle recovery by disrupting our sleep cycle. It doesn’t end there either. Working out with a hangover can decrease our aerobic capacity by as much as 11%. Therefore, to protect our bodies and begin to replenish them from the damage done by alcohol consumption, it may be best to take a day off from the gym after a night of indulgence.
Now you may be wondering, how can we possibly enjoy a healthy balance in life, ward off the nursing home and still see performance gains? Moderation and a few well thought out tactics can certainly help! Saving alcohol consumption for special events instead of making it a daily occurrence will ensure that an alcohol-dependency doesn’t develop. This will also support our bodies in absorbing and utilizing nutrients efficiently, sleeping deeply, and hitting our workouts will full intensity. While at social events that include alcohol, having a water between every libation will lessen dehydration and slow down the rate of alcohol consumption. Drinking on days where we plan to fully rest and recover is also helpful, as well as drinking earlier in the day to lessen the cortisol spikes at night that alter our sleep. Finally, making sure we eat nutrient dense foods often will boost our bodies ability to detoxify and recover as efficiently as possible.
In a culture that loves to entertain, being indulgent once in a while is certainly a part of maintaining a healthy, balanced life. When it comes to alcohol, our best protection is knowledge. When we know exactly what we are getting ourselves into, we can throughtfully decide when, where and how much to consume to compliment our lifestyle and support our goals. As summer approaches, we are often torn between achieving that beach body we’ve always dreamed of, and enjoying bottomless margaritas on a rooftop deck. While there is no right or wrong, supporting our bodies with nutrient dense foods, water, daily exercise and restorative sleep will set us up for a faster recovery time and lessened repercussions when we do decide that rooftop margaritas are the perfect way to spend the 4th of July.
- Keck, Rachel. “How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain? (It’s Not Pretty).” Dr. Axe, 3 Mar. 2018, draxe.com/how-does-alcohol-affect-the-brain/.
- Vella, Luke D, and David Cameron-Smith. “Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery.” Nutrients, MDPI, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257708/.