Having gone to school for most my life I understand what it’s like in college. On Thursday or Friday nights people will do a two-hour workout and then party all night. Of course, part of partying is drinking, but what effects does this have on our gains? One thing we know is that it is very high in calories; in fact, seven calories per gram. We also know that when alcohol is consumed it is burned preferentially over fat (i.e. body fat).
When doing this, you are much more likely to store fat. However, even if you don’t have a problem with fat gain, if you are reading this article, I have a sneaky suspicion that you do care about gains in muscle. So, what happens when you train hard and then drink the night away?
Alcohol is slightly different from other macronutrients (carbs, fats, protein) because it is not metabolized the same way. There are various types of alcohols based on their molecular formulas, however, the only type of alcohol that can be consumed is ethanol. When ethanol from a cocktail or beer is consumed, it is sent to the liver to be metabolized. In the liver, ethanol is converted to acetaldehyde, which is then further broken down into acetate. Acetate is an interesting molecule because it is also produced when your body ferments fiber, which is beneficial. Acetate can also be used to produce the ketone body acetoacetate (Ríos-Covián et al., 2016).
Alcohol & Protein Synthesis
A study was published in 2009 that gave rats alcohol. One group of young rats were given a low dose and another old group of rats was given a low or high dose of alcohol. What the researchers found is that in the young rats, at two-and-a-half hours after consumption, their blood ethanol was lower than the older rats. However, in all groups, protein synthesis was significantly lowered, which means that they had turned off the muscle building switch (Lang et al., 2009).
Okay, that study was in rats, so let’s see what the research says about alcohol in humans. In a recent study, eight physically active males completed three resistance training bouts consisting of heavy leg work combined with interval training. They then consumed either:
1) 25 grams of protein
2) Alcohol and protein
3) Alcohol and carbohydrates
This study showed that when protein was consumed by itself two hours after a bout of resistance and endurance exercise, protein synthesis (muscle building) was increased by 297%. However, when protein was consumed with alcohol, protein synthesis was only increased by 157%. However, it’s also important to realize that the protein blunted the negative effects of drinking, at least in part.
Alcohol & Muscle
Alcohol has also been shown to have detrimental effects on testosterone and lean muscle mass (Bianco et al., 2014; Steiner & Lang, 2015). Current research shows that when you consume higher doses of alcohol you not only blunt protein synthesis, but you also cause a decrease in lean muscle mass. In this case, consuming 3-4 drinks can decrease protein synthesis up to 24% after 12 hours. In addition, long-term ingestion has been associated with decreases in muscle mass. More specifically, type II muscle fiber concentrations, which we know are the muscle fibers that have the greatest potential to grow!
If you’re going to drink do it on days that you don’t train to optimize gains. Also, avoid long-term consumption because we know that it may make you lose muscle mass. However, we will say this! The cool thing is that consuming alcohol & protein is better than consuming alcohol & carbs. Therefore, if you are going to drink, make sure you have a protein shake waiting for you when you go to sleep and when you wake up!