It’s no secret that for many the temptation to indulge in alcohol is far greater than the temptation to cheat on their diets with a brownie or sundae. I personally have a much easier time saying no to cake than I do to a few drinks while watching a game or a concert. I can look at the cake and immediately think “You’re evil! Away with your chocolaty goodness!”, but a beer just sits their looking so innocent. It even says “light” right on the bottle! There’s no question that the happy hour is deeply engrained in our society, as well as in our professional lives. Many people share the very real concern that consistently excusing themselves from the office happy hour in the name of health may result in undesirable professional and financial consequences. A 2006 study in The Journal of Labor Research titled “No Booze? You May Lose: Why Drinkers Earn More Money Than Nondrinkers” concluded that on average drinkers earn 10 to 14 percent more than abstainers. Recent studies have also suggested that including one alcoholic beverage in your diet per day may actually be beneficial to your overall heart health, but make no mistake, there are always costs associated with indulgence and over-indulgence. The question you need to answer for yourself is if having a few drinks on the weekends with your friends or coworkers is compatible with your personal fitness journey goals. Below I’ve highlighted three ways that your goals of building muscle can be impeded by including alcohol in your diet.
1. Alcohol Affects Sleep and Growth Hormones
The first truth to remember is that throughout your fitness journey the actual growth of your muscle is taking place when your muscles and your body at rest. Eugen Sandow, who is considered by many to be the founder of modern bodybuilding, instructed his students to get at least 9 hours of sleep per night. He described sleeping any less as “burning their lives at both ends.” Growth hormone (often abbreviated as GH) is a protein hormone consisting of 191 amino acids that is released by the anterior pituitary gland, which is a pea-size gland located below the hypothalamus of the brain. Release of growth hormone in the human body is like a switch that initiates protein synthesis. The presence of alcohol in the blood has been shown to significantly suppress plasma GH values by as much as 70–75% during the overnight period following a bout of drinking. It also has been shown to significantly reduce testosterone levels in males while raising estrogen levels, which is like tell your body to go from a growth state to a fat storage state. Alcohol also disrupts the actions of chemical messengers such as serotonin, and norepinephrine that assist in regulating the phases of sleep. Sleep studies have shown that people who drink alcohol before bedtime spend more of their night in REM sleep, which is a lighter phase of sleep categorized by increased brain waves. The increased brain activity during REM sleep causes increased dreaming, as well awaking more frequently. Spending more time in REM sleep throughout the night means that you spend less time in the most restful sleep phase, known as Slow Wave Sleep (SWS) or deep sleep. This type of sleep is crucial to reaping the most benefits from all the work you put in during your workouts.
In the words of Captain Nemo from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “To be of benefit goodness must be constant, forever building, it must have strength!” What I intend to convey by including this quote is that the qualities of ALL habits and choices in your life, both physical and otherwise, have an affect on the quality of your workouts and fitness. Even relatively minor faux pas such as not getting enough sleep can make you unable to perform your routines at your true level of peak performance. Despite the countless methods out there for achieving a higher level of fitness, the principles of most are the same. Following these core principles to the nth degree is what establishes the peak level of fitness that an individual is capable of attaining. Since we are imperfect beings, we tend to set our applied level of commitment to our fitness goals somewhat below our absolute potential. Let’s face it, not all of us have the time or desire to attain the level of fitness achieved by the top bodybuilders in the world. The amount that you’re comfortable selling yourself short in regards to your full fitness potential is something that you must decide for yourself when establishing your fitness goals. Whatever that goal is be warned that proper rest for your muscles, body, and mind is absolutely key to unlocking your untapped fitness potential.
Most of us have experienced a hangover at one time or another and one of the most memorable symptoms is a slight to severe headache. The reason why we get headaches when we’re hung-over is that it’s a direct effect of being dehydrated. I once heard someone say that dying of thirst is “the hangover that kills you.” The reason that alcohol is so good at dehydrating the body is that alcohol causes a diuretic effect on the renal system. When you’re in a dehydrated state your muscles, which are ultimately comprised of protein and water, are unable to maintain protein synthesis due to a diminished anabolic environment. The general guideline for water consumption is eight nine-ounce glasses per day, but other subjective factors should be considered including height, weight, activity level, and diet. Consuming alcohol is a factor that will require you to drink more water to ensure that your body is sufficiently hydrated in order for it to function properly. I make a point to ALWAYS down a few glasses of water before bedtime on the nights I’ve consumed alcohol. I’ve noticed that following this simple practice eliminates most hangover systems, as it keeps my body much better hydrated.
3. Building Excess Body Fat – The “Beer Muscle”
It’s important to note that most mixed drinks contain substantially more calories than beer, but I guess “mixed drink belly” just doesn’t have the same snap as “beer belly”. So what causes the famed beer belly, or beer muscle? Despite the fact that beer does contain carbohydrates, it’s made up of empty calories and as such does not provide available glucose. The term empty calorie is used to describe food that has the same energy content of any other calorie, but is devoid of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Foods that contain empty calories are typically high in sugars and fats, and lack any real nutritional value. Other examples of empty calorie offenders include French fries, potato chips, doughnuts, sodas, candy, fancy sugar filled coffees, etc. One of the reasons that so many people in the world are overweight is because diets have become so packed with empty calories. By ingesting these types of foods on a regular basis you’re providing your body with more calories than it actually needs, which causes it to store the surplus calories as fat. By consuming a good portion of your calories in the form of empty calories, you’re also denying your body the nutrients it needs in order to function at its optimal level. If you’re looking to avoid building a beer muscle, the key to prevention is moderation in your consumption.
Is the above information meant to convince you that beer and other alcohol have no place in a fitness journey? No, in truth I wrote this post merely to cut through the crap surrounding this issue. The reality that I wish to emphasize is that the idea of opportunity cost applies to many areas far away from the field of economics, including the area of personal fitness and muscle growth. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, opportunity cost is typically an economics term that is simply defined as the value of the next-best choice that is given up when an alternate choice is selected. I know that French fries are bad for me, but every once in a while I like to enjoy them. I know that this may have an affect my level of fitness, but it’s more important to me to be able to have fries occasionally. The opportunity cost is the value of the path that I didn’t take, which in this case would be the “healthier” me that may have resulted had I refused the French fries. Remember that effect ALWAYS follows cause, so it’s up to you to decide for yourself if the cause is worth it’s effect on your fitness journey.
In response to the “No Booze? You May Lose: Why Drinkers Earn More Money Than Nondrinkers” study, Jim Brit who is the author of “Do This Get Rich!” said “A person who doesn’t drink at all—not that that’s a bad thing—is probably very conservative, and that would keep him or her out of a lot of social circles.” This means that it’s not necessarily the drinking that produced the opportunity to earn more money, but the social interaction that was going on while the drinking was taking place. It’s then fair to say that the most prudent of us fitness freaks could still benefit from the social environment by going out and drinking something nonalcoholic like iced tea. For the rest of us I’ve compiled My Top 20 “Healthiest” Beers List. Drink and be merry my friends, but be wary of the consequences and always do so in moderation. Let your fitness goals have an influence on the decisions you make, instead of living your life with your goals forever sitting on the back burner.