The Unpopular Truth About Alcohol & Recovery
I've been vexed and chagrined by a recent spate of articles in running magazines and on health websites that have addressed the issue of alcohol intake and athletic performance, with an emphasis on recovery. The conclusion put forth by these fluff pieces has unanimously been, "Well, alcohol may not be an ideal post workout beverage, but everyone loves a cold beer, right?!" While pandering to public opinion may assuage readers' gourmand guilt, I feel an obligation to uphold a higher journalistic standard. After all, it's a matter of biochemistry, not opinion.
Recovery not only prepares you for your next effort, but it is the process wherein you reap the benefits of your most recent workout. The goal of every workout is to strengthen and adapt your body to your sport or activity, and this is accomplished in recovery. During this time, your body needs carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores (1), protein to repair damage to existing tissues and build new tissue (2), and antioxidants to counteract the flood of free radicals (cell damaging unstable molecules) produced by training and exercise (3). The truth is that alcohol counteracts every one of these vital processes.
According to a publication by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, when your body metabolizes alcohol it has numerous deleterious effects, including, but not limited to:
- Reducing the amount of antioxidants
- Producing additional free radicals
- Impeding glycogen assimilation
- Increasing systemic inflamation
- Damaging cell mitochondria (4)
- Interfering with amino acids that form key proteins, including:
- those found in the membranes surrounding red blood cells
- tubulin, which is necessary for protein transport within cells as well as cell division
- hemoglobin and albumin, two crucial blood proteins
- collagen, the main structural protein of human connective tissues
It doesn't take a biochemist to see that the effects of alcohol consumption exactly countermand the needs of the body during recovery. And these consequences are inescapable. When alcohol enters your system, whether it be beer, wine, or hard liquor, the body treats it as a poison and prioritizes metabolizing the alcohol, halting assimilation of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (5, 6).
I am not emotionally invested in whether or not other athletes have a beer after a race or take a shot at an aide station or guzzle a suitcase of PBR on a wild Friday night. But when respected information sources in the running and health communities fail to make substantive information available to their readers, the iconoclast in me must make himself heard. And for the record, I only have access to the same information sources as anyone with an internet connection. All of the alcohol related information in this article came from the first page of a Google search.
If you think of your recovery as the Andrea Gail, alcohol is the perfect storm.
(1) "The key to enhancing the replenishment of muscle glycogen is to ingest carbohydrates immediately after your workout. Science shows that this is related to the hormone insulin as well as the enzyme glycogen synthase (discussed above). Insulin stimulates glycogen synthase which then converts more carbohydrate to glycogen. Insulin simultaneously increases the transport of this glycogen from the blood into the muscles. Choreographed perfectly, the hormonal system and associated enzymes work to not only replace the glycogen you lost during exercise but they do it in the most efficient and rapid way.
Once scientists began to focus on insulin's role in glycogen replenishment, another connection was made that impacts the recovery routine. It turns out that ingesting protein along with the carbohydrate increases your insulin response. As a result, up to 30% more glycogen is stored than if you just ingest carbohydrates." – Greg McMillan source
(2) “Protein repairs exercise-induced muscle damage, reduces the response from the stress hormone cortisol and even helps speed glycogen replacement, the goal of taking in carbohydrates, says Jackie Dikos, a registered dietitian and competitive runner who competed in the 2008 U. S. Olympic marathon trials.” – Runner's World source
(3) "Excess free radical formation has been hypothesized to contribute to cancer, atherosclerosis, aging and exercise associated muscle damage. Regular low to moderate physical exercise enhances the antioxidant defense system and protects against exercise induced free radical damage. Heavy exercise increases the level of free radicals. Free radical production or loss of antioxidant protection can adversely affect performance." – Effects of free radicals and antioxidants on exercise performance source
(4) “Mitochondria are responsible for creating more than 90% of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth. When they fail, less and less energy is generated within the cell. Cell injury and even cell death follow. If this process is repeated throughout the body, whole systems begin to fail, and the life of the person in whom this is happening is severely compromised.” – United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation source
(5) “Alcohol is considered a poison by your body, and all efforts are made to excrete it, including the cessation of maintaining healthy blood glucose levels. Studies have shown that alcohol interferes with all three sources of glucose and the hormones needed to maintain healthy blood glucose levels.” – MedicineNet.com source
(6) “The effects that alcohol has on your health start with how it's metabolized. Once alcohol is in your system, your body makes metabolizing it a priority. That means that it will stop metabolizing anything else in order to first get the alcohol metabolized. The reason for this is because unlike protein, carbohydrates, and fat, there is nowhere for alcohol to be stored in our body so it has be metabolized first.” – Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS source