Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Alcohol--it’s complicated. The effects of alcohol consumption vary from person to person and depend on multiple factors such as age, genetics, overall health, frequency, amount, and environment. Countless studies have delved into various issues surrounding alcohol, everything from lifestyle and sociological considerations to chemical and biological factors, with many of these studies inconclusive or contradictory. There are, however, a number of scientifically established facts that indicate there are far more negative effects of alcohol consumption than benefits. So rather than addressing that unanswerable question, “Is it okay to drink alcohol?”, it’s best to understand how alcohol affects the body and why it shouldn’t be part of a sustained, optimized fitness regime.
Alcohol can slow down your metabolism. Unlike sugar or fat, our bodies cannot store alcohol, so it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, triggering the need for an urgent response. Alcohol has no nutritional value whatsoever, sending a “danger” signal to the brain. Because the human body registers alcohol as a toxin, it immediately tries to process and remove it. The liver begins to detoxify, or break down, the alcohol in order to use its byproducts for fuel. Because this detoxification becomes a top priority for the body, normal metabolic functions in the body slow down or are put on hold. So a seemingly reasonable lunch consisting of a healthy salad and glass of wine becomes an uphill battle for your body. The nutrients from that salad will not be absorbed efficiently since your body first sets out to metabolize the wine. Moreover, calorie-rich drinks such as sweet cocktails or beer pile on the additional need to process extra sugars, which will be converted into fat if not used up. By slowing down and interfering with your body’s normal metabolic processes, alcohol essentially reverses the hard work invested in your fitness and healthy eating habits.
Since alcohol is highly caloric, it’s easy to assume it’s an appetite suppressant, but in fact,
the opposite is true. Yes, alcohol is nearly as calorically dense as fat. But while non-alcoholic caloric intake signals the brain to stop sensing hunger, alcoholic consumption does the opposite. Namely, it causes our regulatory system to switch into starvation mode, resulting in food cravings. In fact, for hundreds of years, a pre-dinner drink, or apéritif, was served as a way to increase one’s appetite before a rich meal. In addition to biochemical processes, there are behavioral and environmental components to alcohol fueling increases in appetite. Drinking usually results in some loss of self-control, so monitoring food intake becomes all the more difficult, especially when drinking in social settings. This is especially problematic for anyone trying to lose weight--alcoholic drinks are full of empty calories and they cause you to overeat by stimulating your appetite.
Alcohol also undermines your overall health by zapping your energy. Its sedative qualities do more than relax you after a long day. Having a drink earlier in the day will make you drowsy, robbing you of the energy needed to perform at school, work, or fulfilling family responsibilities. More critically, drinking alcoholic beverages, especially late in the day, negatively affects sleep hygiene. It disrupts healthy sleep patterns by interfering with the body’s chemical processes such as REM cycles which are needed for solid rest. A few hours after consuming alcohol, your body produces a stress hormone, increasing the heart rate,
and acting as a general stimulant. This, in turn, can lead to nighttime awakenings. You may eventually catch up by sleeping longer but the quality of your sleep will be greatly diminished, ultimately reducing your energy levels. If this cycle of drinking and poor sleep occurs on a regular basis, the prolonged fatigue and insomnia could snowball into a severe degradation of health. Whether it’s an isolated hangover after a night out or a habitual pattern of drinking, the loss of energy is substantial and will get worse with time if left unchecked.
If you’re on a weight loss and fitness journey, it’s best to skip the consumption of alcohol. From wreaking havoc on your metabolism to consuming empty calories and disrupting precious restorative sleep, there is just too much downside to have it be part of a healthy lifestyle. There will always be studies and anecdotes to the contrary. For example, much attention has been paid to the possible health benefits of moderate consumption of red wine which could very well be an exception. Even so, it is just one piece of a multivariate puzzle. What works for one person may not for another. Once you have established a consistent exercise and wellness routine, you could refer to these moderate drinking guidelines to see what may work best for you. There’s likely little harm in responsibly having a drink every now and again when celebrating an occasion or marking a holiday. However, if you are making a concerted effort to fine-tune your body to operate most efficiently or striving to achieve optimal health and fitness, it’s best to skip happy hour and go for a jog instead.