Yep, Alcohol Affects Your Fitness

Working out in the gym like an animal?  Not seeing results?  Alcohol (even just a few drinks) can counteract the good work you put in.

Brief review: alcohol metabolism

You drink alcohol, it moves down the esophagus, it enters the stomach and small intestine.  Small blood vessels escort alcohol (known as ethanol, or EtOH to the body) through the bloodstream to its next destination, the liver.  In the liver, EtOH gets metabolized.  The rate at which it is metabolized determines EtOH’s effect on the brain and body.

The liver can process around one ounce of liquor (or one drink) within one hour. If the rate of alcohol consumption exceeds the rate of metabolism in the body, then the liver becomes too busy to handle the increased level of EtOH.  As a result, the additional EtOH accumulates in the blood and body tissues (EtOH prefers brain and muscle out of all the tissues that it can permeate) until it can be metabolized by the liver.

Food will slow down the rate of EtOH absorption.  EtOH is absorbed through the stomach but even more rapidly through the small intestine.  Without eating food, EtOH is absorbed 3x faster.  Even with food, having more than one drink within one hour results in high blood alcohol levels that can last for many hours afterwards.

Now onto why this is a “buzz kill” (tee hee) for your bod.

Acute effects

One fine evening, you ingest more than one serving of alcohol (one drink for women; two drinks for men).  Perhaps you take a blood alcohol content (BAC) test and find out your blood level is close to or in the range of .08% to .10%.  In other words, you are legally intoxicated.  It will take a while until you become sober once again.  You get to sleep at some point… and wake up feeling groggy.  Oh no, a workout is approaching later that day.  Muscle development and recovery are affected in the following ways:

#1.  One night of heavy drinking alters sleep.  Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is secreted naturally during deep sleep.  HGH is responsible for normal muscular growth and repair.  Alcohol can decrease the secretion of HGH by 70%.(1)  Focusing either at work or in the gym will also be more difficult since memories are consolidated during the sleep cycle, and alcohol does not allow your body to enter into the deep phase, where consolidation occurs.

#2.   Alcohol disrupts the water balance inside of the muscle cell.  Dehydrated muscle cells slow down body’s ability to both get proper nutrients to grow and develop, but also heal.  Dehydrated muscle cells also impair the body’s ability to produce ATP (the muscle’s source of energy), which helps muscles contract.  Lowered ATP means less endurance and poor performance during a workout.

#3.  Alcohol consumption depletes important vitamins and minerals.  Vitamin B1 (Thiamin) is depleted the most with increased alcohol consumption.  B1 is integral in metabolism of all three macro-nutrients.  Pop a vitamin?  May or may not help since alcohol in the bloodstream and tissues inhibits the absorption of this vitamin.

Long-term effects

If consuming five plus drinks in one night can affect brain and body tissues for up to three days (1), then over time, consecutive nights of drinking more than one serving has the ability to be very destructive to the body.

#1.  The ability to retain information is limited.  As in an acute state, alcohol affects the sleep cycle.  Memory consolidation gets impaired over time, since alcohol can damage nerve cells and eventually cause brain damage.

#2. Testosterone levels drop.  Looking to build muscle?  Think again, testosterone is the key hormone that helps build and maintain muscle growth — with increased alcohol intake this hormone becomes impaired.  What results is an enlargement in breast size and impotence.  Among females it is possible to see menstrual irregularities and infertility.

#3.  Protein synthesis is diminished.  Chronic use of alcohol can lead to a “muscle wasting” effect.  This is because alcohol can diminish protein synthesis, which results in a decrease in muscle build-up.(1)


The goal of the corporate athlete is to be at peak mental and physical performance.  Drinking in moderation is key to achieving your fitness goals.


(1) Firth, G. For the Athlete: Alcohol and Athletic Performance. Pamphlet on Alcohol and Drug Education from the University of Notre Dame, accessed 11/16 via this link.

(2) Vella L.D., Cameron-Smith D. Alcohol, Athletic Performance and Recovery. Nutrients. 2010; 2(8):781-789. (Full PDF here)

(3) Frias, J.; Torres, J.M.; Rodriguez, R.; et al. Effects of acute alcohol intoxication on growth axis in human adolescents of both sexes. Life Sciences. 2000;67:2691–2697.

(4) Brad21.


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