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What impact alcoholic beverages have on our body and how to consume them more responsibly, so they will not interfere with the results of our efforts in the gym

Form this text you will learn:

-what happens to our body after we consume alcoholic beverages;

-what impact alcohol has on our sleep, weight and athletic achievements;

-what damage it does and if there is any benefit from it;

-how to consume alcoholic beverages without adverse effects to your body;

-my personal philosophy of alcohol consumption – when, how much and why.

I was at a Christmas party and the obliging host asked one of the guests what he would like to drink. He listed the options – whiskey, wine, rakia, vodka, juice or water. The guest smiled and said: “All of them, except for the last two!”

It sounds like a joke, but it led me to discuss the topic of alcohol consumption and what impact it has on a person’s results in the gym. Many people have their diet and exercise routine dialed in and aim high, but although they do an excellent job in all areas, they totally fail for this exact reason – alcohol.  From working with people I have noticed how often someone complains that they are working very hard, but are not achieving the results they deserve. In many of those cases the problem is alcohol and the amount the person unconsciously consumes, as well as the foods that go with it.

An enemy at the gate

I love it when someone asks me what I think about alcohol and expects me to give them the green light to drink. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that the root of the problem is not that someone indulges in a glass of red wine every evening. Trust me! If that was all you drank, you would hardly be on a plateau and would not be asking this question. The problem is that a glass usually turns into half a bottle or a whole bottle. What is more, as with all habits, drinking goes hand in hand with other ones which also become our enemies on our way to success. As I wrote last week, in my online work with many of the women who ask me to develop eating plans for them I notice that Bulgarian ladies drink A LOT of red wine.

Think about it! How often is it that when you open a bottle of wine, instead of going to bed on time, you stay up late at night? How often do you line up platters with snacks and cheeses on the table and before you know it, everything is gone and all you have left is a bottle in the trash can and empty dishes in the sink? This is how you not only drank too much, but you also consumed more food and compromised your sleep, and sleep is very important for the processes that take place in the body and for making our metabolisms work to the fullest.

What happens in the body, when we drink alcohol?


When we consume an alcoholic drink, alcohol (ethanol) reaches the stomach, where some 20-25% is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream. The rest travels on to the small intestine, where it enters the bloodstream again. Once there, alcohol slowly makes its way to the liver, where it enters our metabolism.

As Wikipedia says: “Alcohol is metabolized by a healthy liver at a rate of about 30 grams (one shot glass) per 90 minutes.” Of course, the rate depends on different factors, such as sex, body fat percentage, health. Afterwards any amount above these 30 grams cannot be processed by the liver right away and instead saturates the blood. Imagine you are in one of the popular chain stores. There are just two checkout counters open and two cashiers working. On the other hand there are 20 people waiting in line. It doesn’t matter that you want to get served – you will have to wait for the people in front of you to be served first and how long you will have to wait depends on how many people there are in the line in front of you and how efficiently the cashiers do their job.

Alcohol generally suppresses the central nervous system and one glass will make you relax and feel better (of course, that depends on how big the glass is). But increasing the amount will not multiply the positive response, but will put you in the condition we refer to as “drunk”.

Can alcohol make us fat?


The short answer is: “Yes”. But in order for you to understand how this happens, let’s analyze the intake of one glass of red wine. Let’s say Ivan (since it is his name day during this month) drinks the wine. When the alcohol reaches his digestive system, it splits into two parts: fats and acetate. Fats are absorbed through the bloodstream and get stored where Ivan is most likely to store fat. Acetate, on the other hand, is absorbed into the bloodstream and used by the body as a source of immediate energy.

Remember this last sentence – in this case acetate is the main energy source. This means that instead of burning carbohydrates or fat for energy, Ivan’s body uses acetate. It stops burning other fuels. This way Ivan ends up with a surplus of carbohydrates, protein and fat which circulate in his body and are not used as fuel. Where do they go? They get stored on Ivan’s belly.

What is more, alcohol is an appetite stimulant. After all, we have all heard about the alcoholic beverages that are consumed before a meal to give us an appetite. That is also the strategy many restaurants use to make us eat more.

When alcohol is consumed in larger amounts, it increases cortisol secretion and lowers testosterone levels. Chronically elevated cortisol and low testosterone levels keep you from building muscles and facilitate fat storage. This is how Ivan turns into a potato on sticks or in other words – a big belly and skinny legs (this is still our Ivan we are talking about, not every Ivan we know!)

Why can alcohol consumption harm us?


Actually alcohol consumption can have both a positive and a negative impact. I will start with the negative effect and leave the “good” part for last.

1.Alcohol is devoid of nutrients

I.e. alcohol is empty calories. At the same time alcohol is calorie-dense, i.e. you consume calories, but they provide nothing to your body in terms of nutritional value and afterwards you will also have to consume food to satiate your hungry body.

Alcohol is the first fuel our energy system uses, which means that all other calories you consume will be directed to your fat cells and stored there.

2.It stimulates insulin production

You are probably extremely familiar with insulin and know that it is not a hormone to be trifled with and we should not “summon” it, unless we really need it.

3.It dehydrates the body

I have a friend who always asks me why he should work out and watch his diet, when all he needs to do is drink more and wake up with six-pack abs in the morning. Well, nonetheless dehydration is not good for the body. You know that 70-90% of our body is water and its functions – each and every one of its processes – depend on it. Dehydration slows down the metabolism, it increases our perception of hunger and makes us feel nervous. Our actions are always triggered by an emotion and emotions like these would not lead to constructive actions.

4.It interferes with the regulation of hormonal processes in the body

You know we are the result of the state of our hormones. When they are unbalanced, it shows in the way we look and feel. What is more, there are studies that show that alcoholic beverages contain fermentation by-products with an estrogenic effect.  These are the phytoestrogens that you all know to be harmful.

5.It interferes with sleep

Now don’t rush to tell me that you have no problem falling asleep, when you drink. It is not only important if we sleep, but also how we sleep, i.e. what the quality of our sleep is. Sleep is a complicated process that is divided into phases and is influenced by a number of factors, both from our external and from our internal environment. It is also dependent on hormones, and as I mentioned, alcohol inhibits the release of some of them.

6.It is quite calorie-dense

You know I don’t approve of drinking your calories. First of all, because it is easy to overdo it. Second of all, because eating is a process and that is why a lot more conditions have to be fulfilled for us to feel full, than just the supply of calories. For the body to feel full, our food has to go through different stages – from when it enters our mouth through saliva secretion and all the way to its entry into the stomach. All these organs are information centers which tell the brain what happens and what the body should be prepared for.

7.It interferes with sound thinking and stops you from making adequate decisions

How often have you had some alcohol and felt a craving for some food after that? And it’s usually some pastry product or something sweet. Since most people drink alcohol till late at night, at 11 or 12 pm no one stops to think about eating healthy. You’ve had a little to drink and your mind craves sweets. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter and it is all right today. We postpone feeling good today merely to satisfy a craving, triggered by our drunken state. Even if you don’t abuse alcohol, it usually goes hand in hand with nuts, chips, French fries, snacks. A handful is often followed by another one, not to mention that when you drink in a pleasant company, glasses and plates get empty before you know it. So at the end of the evening you have consumed a lot of calories without even realizing it. The more important thing is these calories bring no nutrients to your body – they are “empty” and your body will request what it needs on the day after.

But are there any benefits at all?

Since I probably sound like your grandma who has been teaching you how bad it is to drink, since you were a little kid, let me point out that there are two sides to every story. After I put my heart and soul into explaining the negative effects of alcohol intake, it is time to do the same for the positive effects.

1.If consumed in moderation, alcohol can make you feel better

Back in the days when I used to be a basketball player 🙂

Now I am going to share something with you that nobody knows. It will be our little, public secret. I have always been one of those athletes who get nervous before a competition. Basketball is a sport that allows you to overcome this feeling. You are nervous during the first two or three minutes, but then you have 37-38 more minutes to play. When I took up swimming, things changed. You take your position on the starting block and have no time to worry.  You have to be in shape from the very beginning. On my first competition I got so nervous that my muscles stiffened up and I could barely finish my race. I thought I was going to drown in a swimming competition. I looked for ways to deal with my anxiety, so I could show what I had been practicing for all this time. I trained my mind and used calming techniques, but resorted to one more thing. I still drank Coke at the time, so I poured a capful of whiskey into the bottle. I drank the Coke 30-40 minutes before the start of the race. I felt quite calm and the race went great.

So alcohol in small amounts can make you relax. That does not mean you should use it as a stress remedy every day. But it won’t hurt you to pour yourself a glass of red wine once or twice a week, light some candles and lie down on the couch or in the bathtub.

Back in the days when I was a swimmer 🙂

2.It thins the blood

A moderate alcohol consumption (mostly red wine) helps improve the functioning of the cardiovascular system.

3.Alcohol intake is associated with pleasant, social events

Ever since ancient times people have come closer to each other by gathering round the table and sharing delicious meals, drinks and stories. Although when I attend get-togethers of this kind, I myself usually drink water or pour myself a sip of red wine, just for the toast.

What is my personal philosophy of drinking?

Drinking alcohol is not healthy. But neither is staying up late, overeating, spending too much time in confined spaces without being exposed to daylight or at the computer, etc. Every pleasure is about conscious consumption and use and the balance achieved. I am all too well aware we are humans and not robots. We live and feel satisfied through our experiences which are also accompanied by temptations. All things in moderation. If you enjoy it, you can have some alcohol from time to time. Don’t drink out of habit. Don’t drink because you must or because you are expected to. Drink when and as much as feels good to you. But I am not giving you the green light to overdo it! What feels good is usually the first bites and the first sips – after that we are talking indulgence.

How can we achieve balance, so drinking does not interfere with our goals in the gym?

If you like having some alcohol from time to time, I will not make you give it up. The important thing is for you to set your goals and then find a place for alcohol, so as to feel satisfied, not feel deprived and at the same time achieve your goals.

So the first thing you should do is answer what your goal is:

– Do you want to be an elite athlete?

– Do you just want to look and feel good?

– Are you aiming for the lowest body fat percentage possible?

– Do you want to lose or gain a couple of kilograms?

Become your own body’s entrepreneur! Experiment and take note of how your body responds. How do you feel and do you achieve your goals, if you have a glass of wine every evening? You don’t? Then you can try drinking a day or two apart. It all comes down to experimenting, monitoring the result and then adopting the actions that are necessary to correct the outcome, so you can achieve what you want.

Manual for a responsible alcohol consumption

When discussing alcohol consumption and its effects, we should emphasize that the type of alcohol you consume matters too. Some beverages contain a higher alcohol percentage than others. For example beer has less alcohol than wine. This quite often pushes us to drink more beer, because we think we will not get drunk as quickly. But beer is quite calorie-dense and more bottles lead to more empty calories.

Every alcoholic beverage also has a different calorie count. Here is the calorie count in a 100 grams of:

– red or white wine – 130 calories and 5-6 grams of carbohydrates;

– a Margarita cocktail (tequila, soda and lime) – 150 calories and 5 grams of carbohydrates;

-whiskey, brandy, scotch, cognac – 64 calories and 0 carbohydrates;

– vodka – 66 calories and 3 grams of carbohydrates;

– Beer – 150 calories and 10-14 grams of carbohydrates (don’t forget that beer is made from cereals and yeast is used in the fermentation process, which makes it a poor choice). Calories also depend on the type of beer you drink.

You should also bear in mind that combining an energy drink with alcohol, i.e. caffeine and alcohol, acts as a potent diuretic. What is more, alcohol tries to “slow down” our nervous system, while caffeine tries to speed it up, and so we confuse the body.

Some tricks for drinking in moderation, with pleasure and with no hangovers

  1. Eat before you drink. This will help you not get drunk too quickly and your body will be supplied with quality fuel.
  2. Drink lemon water while drinking alcohol.
  3. Do not mix different types of alcohol.
  4. Try to stop drinking at least an hour before you go to bed.
  5. Refrain from drinking alcohol that has been mixed with juice or a fizzy drink. This makes your drink taste better and that stimulates your appetite for alcohol and makes you drink more without realizing it.
  6. Always choose quality alcohol, even if it costs more. Quality alcohol usually has a fuller taste. That satisfies your receptors faster and you do not need to drink more to give yourself pleasure.

If you did have too much alcohol on the night before, try these tips on the day after:

  1. Hydrate your body. Drink more lemon water.
  2. Your body is deficient in minerals. Home-made broths are an excellent source of minerals. Have two or three cups throughout the day.
  3. Take a cold shower. It will make your body mobilize and you will feel much more energetic and concentrated.
  4. Heavy physical exertion is not to recommend, but movement IS! So go out for a walk.
  5. Do not take painkillers for your headache. When your liver is busy metabolizing alcohol, it processes painkillers in a different way which leads to toxic components that can provoke inflammation.

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Ines Subashka

Инес Субашка е основател на IFS - зали за кондиционни тренировки и мобилност. Автор е на 6 книги за здравословно хранене и движение.

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