Alcohol has become a huge part of American culture and is now the center of many social events, both personal and professional. Alcohol is also used as a means to boost confidence, wind down after a long day, and is even used by introverts when confronted with large crowds. But, how often do we stop to think about the negative effects of alcohol?
In 2015, 26.9% of Americans ages 18 years or older reported that in the past month they engaged in binge drinking while 7% reported heavy alcohol use (1). The percentages greatly increase when asked about casual drinking such as a single glass of wine before bed or a few drinks with friends at dinner.
Not only is alcohol widely used for both emotional and social reasons, but it has also become the most common sleep aid, with over 20% of Americans relying on it to help them fall asleep. But, the hidden truths we will unravel about alcohol may have you questioning the consumption of your next beverage.
In this article, we will discuss 6 ways that alcohol negatively impacts your goals in life and in the gym, from decreased memory and learning to poor recovery and muscular entropy.
In one of Central Athletes’ favorites books, Why We Sleep written by Matthew Walker, he essentially recommends that we stop consuming alcohol solely because of his deep understanding of the science behind alcohol and sleep. But why trust his recommendation? Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science, and has been studying the science behind sleep for decades.
(Disclaimer: the purpose of this article is not to convince you to cut alcohol completely; in fact, at the end of this article we will provide tips on how to enjoy alcohol without letting it get in the way of your life.)
Sure, alcohol might make it feel like you have had a proper night’s sleep, but rather than aiding you in the quality sleep we all desire, it is similar to a mild form of anesthesia acting more like a sedative than anything else. Although you may seem to fall asleep quicker, your sleep becomes littered with “mini-awakenings” that will not be remembered and will leave you feeling exhausted and unrefreshed the next morning.
Due to the sedative effects of alcohol, it is shown to be the most powerful suppressor of REM sleep that scientists are aware of to date. Just as alcohol affects the REM sleep of adults, it inflicts the same removal of REM sleep in the fetus of a pregnant woman, decreasing the ability to establish synaptic connections within the developing brain. (2)
Memory & Learning
Benefits of REM sleep that are lost due to alcohol consumption include the processing and integration of emotions, motivations, and memories from the previous day and emotional acuity the following day. Studies found that those who lacked REM sleep the previous night slipped into a default fear bias, believing that gentle and friendly faces were menacing. In simplest terms, the loss of REM sleep removes the levelheaded ability to read the social world accurately. REM sleep is also imperative for effective problem solving, providing a more fluid and divergent state of information processing. (2)
Matthew Walker even credits our intense degree of REM sleep relative to other mammals as a pivotal trigger that rocked homo-sapiens to the top of the evolutionary pyramid. A loss of REM sleep greatly affects your productivity in the workplace, positive human interactions, as well as your memory and learning. All essential if you are a working professional!
“People consuming even moderate amounts of alcohol in the afternoon and evenings are depriving themselves of REM sleep” - Matthew Walker
It makes you think... would work events revolving around alcohol still be the norm if our bosses knew the extent of productivity lost the day after?
Studies also show that alcohol consumption contributes to systemic inflammation by interfering with the body’s natural defense of gut microbiota. It impairs the balance of microflora in the gut, the gut barrier function, the liver’s ability to detoxify bacterial products and the brain’s ability to regulate inflammation. When these natural defenses are impaired, systemic inflammation ensues. (4) Because of this, it is not uncommon for those who consume alcohol regularly to also have chronic pain and/or injuries, perpetual illness, and low levels of energy. Simply decreasing or eliminating your consumption of alcohol can greatly improve these frustrating symptoms!
Alcohol consumption affects more than just your productivity in professional settings; it also plays a detrimental role in regards to increased performance inside the gym. Due to the “mini-awakenings” that occur during sleep after the consumption of alcohol, the secretion of growth hormone is also affected. “Alcohol consumption has been shown to inhibit spontaneous pulsatile growth hormone secretion.” (3) Human growth hormone, which is naturally secreted during sleep around 2:00 am helps maintain, build, and repair healthy tissues in the brain and other organs. It is a crucial part of healing after an injury as well as muscle repair after exercise and is essential to build muscle mass, boost metabolism, and burn fat. If your goals are increasing strength and performance in the gym or building or maintaining muscle mass, you may want to think twice before your next encounter with alcohol.
If your health and fitness goals revolve around losing weight, decreasing alcohol consumption may be something to consider. Not only does alcohol consumption make it difficult to remain in a caloric deficit, but it also leads to poor behavioral choices. Have you stayed out late drinking with friends only to find yourself 5 pieces deep in a box of pepperoni pizza a few hours later? These behaviors, even if repeated only once every week, can wreak havoc on all of the hard work you put into your nutrition throughout the week. Yes, it is true that one meal can undo your weekly deficit, especially when alcohol is involved, due to the higher caloric content. You’d be surprised how easy it is to consume 3,000-5,000 calories in both alcohol and food in a single evening.
Alcohol also negatively affects your pancreas, which has two main functions: an endocrine function that regulates blood sugar as well as an exocrine function that helps with digestion. When the pancreas and liver are not functioning properly, the risk of blood sugar dysregulation becomes high. When it comes to weight loss, energy balance and blood sugar regulation is extremely important.
Because the pancreas also plays a crucial role in secreting enzymes for the breakdown and assimilation of nutrients, it is also common to experience digestive issues with prolonged alcohol consumption. (5) If you are experiencing symptoms such as gassiness, bloating, diarrhea, painful stools, and/or GERD, you may want to limit consumption to see if these symptoms lessen.
The mission of this article is not to suggest that alcohol consumption be cut completely but to provide education and awareness that will lead to better alignment in regards to your health and fitness journey.
Although the ideal amount of alcohol consumed for optimizing health is zero, when an individual cuts alcohol completely, the probability of binge drinking down the road is increased due to feelings of deprivation. Instead, our solution is turning drinking into a luxury saved for rare occasions such as weddings and special events. It is also imperative to ensure you are drinking with intention and control. How? Choose your alcohol wisely by opting for lower-calorie beverages with minimal ingredients. Sipping on tequila with soda water and a splash of lime is a better alternative than a margarita or mojito. Be sure to drink 8oz of water between each beverage and designate a responsible stopping point to avoid overconsumption. Check out our “hacking alcohol” video to learn more about how to drink intentionally without compromising your goals. It is important to know that any amount of alcohol consumed will result in the suppression of REM sleep and growth hormone production, but by limiting the number of times throughout the year you are consuming alcohol, the effects listed above will be less detrimental to your success.
Interested in a more personalized plan to help you reach your goals? Central Athlete is more than a training facility. Our coaches provide each client with a personalized and holistic plan that takes into consideration everything outside of the gym as well such as sleep, stress, and behaviors. This is essential in order to create a long-term roadmap that truly supports your deepest priorities. Through a consultative process and continued support, you are sure to make the strides you’ve always wanted to optimize not only your time spent in the gym but other areas as well, such as work and home life. If you are interested in learning more click the link below to schedule a free strategy session with a Central Athlete coach today!
- WALKER, M (2017) Why We Sleep. Simon and Schuster.
- Badger, T. M., Ronis, M. J. J., Lumpkin, C. K., Valentine, C. R., Shahare, M., Irby, D., Huang, J., Mercado, C., Thomas, P., Ingleman-Sundberg, M. and Crouch, J. (1993) Effects of chronic ethanol on growth hormone secretion and hepatic cytochrome P450 isozymes of the rat. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 264, 438–447.
- Rachdaoui N, Sarkar DK. (2017) Pathology of effects of alcohol use on the endocrine system. Alcohol Res. 2017;38(2):255-276.