Alcohol – a socially permitted muscle diminishing poison?

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Alcohol – a socially permitted muscle diminishing poison?

Cheers Alcohol

The current lifestyle that has taken over the world places alcohol on a pedestal for social bonding and interaction. There is rarely a gathering without the crinkling of glasses and the laughter that ensues. Are fitness conscious individuals who are strict with their diets and training routine at a loss on their stance on alcohol?

Do you say no, for the sake of your health, and risk missing out on the hedonistic craziness and an illustrious social life?

Or do you say yes and drown all your gains down the drain?

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol is an organic compound containing at least one hydroxyl group (-OH). The hydroxyl group replaces one or more hydrogen atoms in a hydrocarbon to form alcohol. When we talk about alcoholic beverages we point towards ethanol/ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH). From a caloric expenditure standpoint, 1 gram of alcohol provides 7.1 calories, almost as high as the caloric value of fats which is approx. 9kcal. [2]

Now alcohol is obviously not the best aid to good health. However, in this article, we will focus primarily on the effects of alcohol on one’s physique, training, fat loss and muscle tone along with the safe limits for alcohol consumption.

Alcohol and Fat Loss:

In an observational study of 10,550 subjects when grouped according to gender and alcohol consumption levels (non-drinkers, moderate drinkers, hazardous drinkers (>70gm/day)), it was found that alcohol consumption has no effects on basal metabolism rate and WHR (Waist to Hip Ratio) across the groups. [1]

It is also seen that with increased alcohol consumption, level of physical activity decreases. [1]

Hazardous drinkers (>70 gm/day) have significantly lower body fat percentage in comparison to non-drinkers and social drinkers. This statement however holds true only for men. For women alcohol is not a significant contributing factor in body fat percentage. [1]

Despite a correlation, a cause and effect association of alcohol and body weight increase has not been established. [2]. Weight changes can only be resulted by a positive or negative calorific balance.

When the calorie content of the diet is boosted beyond maintenance by addition of carbohydrates or fat, weight gain is observed for both drinkers and non–drinkers alike. [3]

Weight loss as well as weight gain is attributed to energy balance. If the goal is to lose weight keeping alcohol consumption intact, simply lower total calories so that you are still in a calorie deficit and you’ll still burn fat. Calorie deficit is the only criteria that you need to fulfill to lose weight.

Alcohol and Physical Activity

One would assume that fitness and social drinking cannot go hand in hand and that athletic performance and physical activity is deteriorated by alcohol, but recent research seems to say otherwise.

Alcohol consumers of all ages tend to be more physically active than their non-drinking counterparts. [4]

This behavior can be observed in college athletes indulging in all night partying with booze, which albeit is said to be detrimental to health and fitness. This could be due to the team celebration that involves alcohol consumption. Multiple population surveys show that the correlation between physical activity and alcohol consumption extends even to non-athletes. [4,5]

However, with the increase in alcohol consumption, the level of physical activity is also shown to decrease thereby establishing an inverse proportionality that can be depicted in the graph below. [1]

It can be shown that while the level of physical activity, as per the population-based research, shows an increase in physical activity with alcohol, it peaks at light to moderate drinking. When drinking increases beyond the moderate levels, there is a drop in physical activity levels. [12, 13]

There is conflicting evidence on the subject and a cause – effect relation hasn’t been established yet. Most of the research stems from population-based surveys and all the factors at play aren’t perfectly laid out.

Research indicates the opposite as well, that people who are physically active tend to drink more than their lesser active peers. [6] This is despite proposals to use exercise as a method for controlling alcohol intake and alcoholism. The reasoning behind this is related to the reward centers of the brain that are naturally simulated by survival enhancing activities such as food, sex and exercise and that releases dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. [7, 8, 9, 10, 11]

To better understand this reward circuitry, let us look into the roles of these neurotransmitters:[25]

● An increase in dopamine levels is associated with a positive and uplifted mood.

● Serotonin is associated with a sense of satisfaction, optimism and happiness.

● Endorphins are associated with inhibition of pain and a general feeling of confidence, well-being and a happy mood.

While these activities simulate the reward circuitry in the brain naturally, the same effect can be artificially drawn by drugs and alcohol. The proposal given is to activate the reward circuitry with exercise and thereby decreasing the urge for alcohol. [7, 8, 9, 10, 11]

Alcohol and Muscle Composition:

Before we delve into the association of alcohol with the muscle composition, there are few determinants we need to understand:

● SMI (Skeletal Muscle mass Index) – This is the defining data point corresponding to the lean muscle mass in the body. Skeletal muscle mass index (SMI) is calculated by dividing the limb skeletal muscle mass (kg) by the square of the height (m2). Low muscle mass was defined as SMI <7.0 kg/m2 in men and <5.7 kg/m2 in women. [14]

● MPS (Muscle Protein Synthesis) – This denotes the adaptative response to muscle breakdown by generating protein to build muscles.

● MPB (Muscle Protein Breakdown) – The general assumption is that resistance training helps build muscles, however the process is not straightforward. As a response to exercise, specifically resistance training, the muscles are continually facing wear and tear i.e. Muscle Protein Breakdown. As a response to this breakdown, the MPS gears forward. Therefore, emphasis is laid on the recovery process as well. If the MPS exceeds MPB, muscle gain is observed. The muscle composition can be completely attributed to this muscle protein balance. [15]

With the minimum daily protein consumption of 1.2 grams/kg, the risks of developing low SMI and muscle loss with aging is minimized. This is consistent in both men and women.

But for women who consume alcohol, this protective layer provided by high protein consumption against low SMI is attenuated. [16]

Therefore we can say alcohol consumption can be blamed for the reduction of muscle preserving effect of dietary protein. [16]

Excess alcohol consumption, for the purpose of study – above 9 standard units a week for women and above 14 standard units a week for men, leaves the skeletal muscle susceptible to alcohol induced muscle disease (a.k.a. alcohol myopathy), characterized by atrophy of type II muscle fibres, significant reduction in both muscle mass and strength. [17, 19]

Alcohol consumption and its metabolites, not any deficiency, are to be blamed for alcohol myopathy due to the alcohol induced defects in the muscle membrane. [17]

Most of the alcohol abusers struggle with impaired muscle function, reduction in muscle mass, in fibre diameter and in muscle strength. [17,18] Ethanol abuse directly results in disturbances in muscle protein metabolism and carbohydrate metabolism in muscles. [18,19]

The extreme toxicity of alcohol, in both acute and chronic consumption is well established in terms of damage to protein synthesis not just in skeletal muscles but also in other organs. [19]

There is a decrease in plasma testosterone levels in men even with moderate consumption (40 grams a day for men and 30 grams a day for women). However, this decrease is not significant enough to result in MPS impairment. [22]

This doesn’t mean that a single drop of alcohol is damaging to muscle composition. Evidence suggests that low to moderate consumption of alcohol doesn’t impair the MPS whereas acute ingestion or chronic abuse of alcohol is proven to reduce the basal muscle protein synthesis. [20]

Though the common practice of consuming copious amount of alcohol after training or match is widespread, the recovery process is delayed and the MPS after a strenuous bout of exercise is decreased. This result is consistent even when enough protein is supplemented. [21]

There is consistent evidence that demonstrates that both acute and chronic ingestion of alcohol impairs muscle protein synthesis and delays the recovery period, even with the required protein consumption. However, there is a limitation to the studies in terms of the amount of alcohol consumption. There are studies to show that alcohol in small volume (less than 30 grams a day) doesn’t impair testosterone level substantially (a major determinant of MPS).

While alcohol impairs MPS, recovery, testosterone levels and affects skeletal muscles, there is no cause for a panic and fear mongering that a drop of alcohol will cause you to lose all the gains.

Safety Limits of Alcohol:

There is insufficient research and conflicting evidence to establish a set safety limit for alcohol consumption.

There are also studies that negate the need for abstaining and shows that in limited quantities, alcohol can avert various health risks.[24]

We cannot pin-point the balancing point. However, it is advisable for drinkers to stick to occasional drinking in moderation. If possible, try to reduce the quantity to the lowest point.

For a simple understanding of levels of alcohol consumption, please consider the below figures:

Key Takeaways:

● There is no cause and effect established between alcohol consumption and body fat percentage.

● If one adheres to the calorie deficit, there is fat loss despite the amount of alcohol consumption. As long as alcohols’ calories are taken into account.

● Studies show a direct relation between alcohol consumption and physical activity levels.

● However, drinking beyond the moderation results in a drop in the activity levels.

● Alcohol consumption isn’t shown to affect basal metabolic rate.

● Chronic alcohol abuse and acute ingestion of alcohol can lead to alcohol myopathy characterized by decreased muscle performance and atrophy of muscle fibres.

● Alcohol consumption increases the chances of low SMI, even with the required protein consumption, especially for women.

● Alcohol doesn’t cause a substantial decrease in testosterone levels in men.

● Alcohol impairs MPS, delays the recovery period and negatively influences skeletal muscle mass.

● Low to moderate, occasional consumption of alcohol need not cause panic from health and physique perspective. Low to moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with increase in activity levels.

● A safety limit for alcohol consumption needs to be established.

Article written by Snigdha Priyadarshini


1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921229/
3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8814656/
4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22208422/
5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18477525/
6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25222084/
7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4629692/#B24
8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8571000/
9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4012312/
10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2537995/
11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11978804/
12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11513224/
13. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19750956/
14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6400206/
15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2732256/
16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770710/
17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14629892/
18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11418224/
19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10422097/
20. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4420901/
21. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088384
22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15166654/
23. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31310-2/fulltext
24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6713002/
25. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4449495/
26. http://www.sbirtoregon.org/wp-content/uploads/AUDIT-English-pdf.pdf

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