Delayed gains: Exploring how alcohol impacts muscle repair

Muscle repair and recovery are pivotal in the fitness game, whether you are an avid gym-goer or a professional athlete. Your workout programme is important for those looking to gain muscle or speed up recovery, but so are choices made outside the gym. While every aspect of lifestyle and diet affects muscle repair and recovery, alcohol can have a more substantial impact than many people realise. While enjoying a drink socially or winding down after a stressful day may seem harmless, the after-effects on muscle repair can be profound.

This article delves into the science behind alcohol’s effects on muscle recovery, offering valuable insights for those committed to their fitness journey.

Muscle protein synthesis and alcohol

Every weightlifting or resistance training session causes microscopic damage to our muscle fibres. It’s this damage that instigates the body’s repair process, leading to muscle growth. Central to this repair process is Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) – the body’s ability to create new proteins to replace the damaged ones.

Now, enter alcohol. Studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption post-exercise can significantly decrease the rate of MPS. In one study, it was discovered that alcohol, when consumed after resistance exercise, can reduce the synthesis of protein in the muscles by as much as 37%. This means that the after-hours drink can undermine the hard work put in during an intense workout.

Why does alcohol disrupt MPS?

Alcohol’s disruption of MPS is multifaceted:

Alcohol impedes the activation of pathways necessary for initiating MPS. For example, the mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) – a central regulator of cell growth and muscle repair – is less activated in the presence of alcohol. This significantly reduces the body’s ability to kickstart the muscle repair process.

Alcohol also affects the levels of hormones that are critical for muscle growth. Testosterone, an anabolic hormone that plays a key role in muscle building, has been found to decrease with alcohol consumption, while cortisol, a catabolic hormone that can lead to muscle breakdown, increases.

Alcohol can also increase oxidative stress within the muscles, leading to inflammation and further delaying the healing of muscle tissues. This means that the negative effects of alcohol on MPS are not only immediate but can also have longer-term consequences on muscle health and growth.


Alcohol and dehydration

Dehydration is a well-known side effect of alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it increases urine production, leading to the loss of fluids and electrolytes that are crucial for muscle function and repair. The science behind this is straightforward: alcohol suppresses the release of vasopressin, a hormone that typically helps the kidneys reabsorb water and prevent excessive urine production. With lower vasopressin levels, the kidneys produce more urine, accelerating fluid loss.

For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, hydration is paramount. Muscles are approximately 75% water, and even a slight level of dehydration can significantly impact muscle function and lead to cramps, strains and other injuries. Water also plays a crucial role in transporting nutrients to the muscles, flushing out toxins, preventing muscle soreness and supporting overall metabolic processes. A lack of adequate hydration hampers these essential functions, making muscle recovery an uphill battle.

Drinking and disrupted sleep patterns

Sleep is a linchpin of muscle recovery as it’s during these hours of rest that our body truly gets to work repairing and rebuilding muscle fibres damaged during exercise. Growth hormone, a primary driver of tissue growth and muscle repair, is released predominantly during deep sleep, and so disrupting this precious recovery window can have detrimental effects on muscle health.

While many people mistakenly believe alcohol aids sleep due to its sedative effects, the reality is that it wreaks havoc on the sleep cycle. Alcohol has been shown to reduce the proportion of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a critical phase of our sleep cycle linked with mental recovery and mood regulation. By suppressing REM sleep, alcohol impairs the body’s ability to transition through the natural stages of sleep effectively, restricting the muscle recovery process.

A barrier to nutrient absorption

One of the key factors in muscle repair is the body’s ability to absorb and utilise essential nutrients like proteins, vitamins and minerals. Alcohol, however, can act as a significant barrier to these crucial processes:

Protein metabolism

Protein is the building block of muscles, so meat and protein shakes make up a major part of athletes’ diets. After a workout, our muscles crave protein, but alcohol has been shown to interfere with the way our body processes protein. Specifically, alcohol can reduce muscle protein synthesis, hindering muscle fibres’ repair and growth.

Vitamin and mineral absorption

Vitamins and minerals like Vitamin D, B-complex vitamins and zinc also play a role in muscle function and repair. However, excessive alcohol consumption can affect this absorption, such as, causing a deficiency in Vitamin B12 and thiamine, both of which are crucial for muscle function.

Digestive enzymes

Alcohol irritates the stomach lining and can lead to complications like gastritis. This irritation can reduce the production and activity of digestive enzymes, which are responsible for breaking down and absorbing nutrients.

Tips for balancing alcohol consumption and fitness goals

If you don’t want to give up drinking altogether, maintaining an active fitness regimen while occasionally indulging in a drink or two is possible with a conscious approach. The negative impacts of alcohol on muscle recovery and performance are evident, but with careful planning and knowledge, you can strike a balance:

1. Stay hydrated

Alcohol is a diuretic, so for every alcoholic drink consumed, aim to drink an equal amount of water. This not only keeps you hydrated but also helps in metabolising the alcohol more efficiently.

2. Limit consumption

High levels of alcohol can seriously hinder athletic performance and muscle recovery, but moderate drinking, done responsibly, can reduce potential negative impacts. Set a personal limit before you start drinking, and make sure you stick to it. If you are having trouble cutting down your drinking or you are worried you may have an alcohol addiction, contact UKAT for professional support.

3. Consume surplus protein

While alcohol can impede muscle protein synthesis, consuming extra protein can offer some counterbalance. Try to have a protein-rich meal or shake before you consume alcohol or snack on protein-based foods while drinking. This not only provides a buffer for the alcohol but also aids in muscle repair.

4. Rest and recovery

After a night out drinking, your body might not be in its best shape for a rigorous workout due to dehydration, reduced energy and potential muscle soreness. Consider taking a rest day or opting for a lighter workout to give your body a chance to recover.

5. Time your drinks

Consuming alcohol right after a workout can hinder the recovery process as this is the prime time for muscle repair and nutrient uptake. If you plan to drink, try to leave a window of a few hours between your exercise session and alcohol consumption.

Final thoughts

Remember, the pursuit of fitness is a holistic one. The choices we make outside the gym are just as important as the hours we spend getting a sweat on. From inhibiting muscle protein synthesis to disrupting our much-needed sleep cycles, alcohol can have a major negative effect on your fitness goals. However, with responsible consumption, coupled with informed decisions like staying hydrated and timing your drinks, it is possible to find a middle ground.

If you find yourself battling with an increasing dependency on alcohol, remember that help is available. UKAT offers a holistic environment for alcohol detox and rehab and ongoing support to help you stay sober long-term. Contact us today to find out more.

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