As you cook yourself dinner, you may think to pair the meal with delicious red wine. Or perhaps the weekend is around the corner and you plan to indulge in a few drinks with your friends.
However, if you’re hitting the gym hard in pursuit to build muscle, have you ever wondered how alcohol affects your gains?
As a whole, consuming alcohol does kill your gains by suppressing muscle protein synthesis and lowering testosterone levels. It also leads to dehydration and interrupted sleep, which has a negative impact on muscle strength and performance. However, some data suggest that alcohol in moderation improves insulin sensitivity.
Today I will explain everything there is to know about how alcohol affects your gains and what can you do about it.
However, I won’t cover here how alcohol affects your weight loss progress. I’ve already covered that in my article “alcohol and calorie deficit“, which I recommend you read.
Does Alcohol Kill Gains In The Gym?
In general, drinking alcohol does kill gains in the gym because it leads to muscle weakness and atrophy. Chronic and acute alcohol consumption suppresses the anabolic response in muscle and lower rates of muscle protein synthesis, even when you have a high protein meal.
Let me explain.
- Muscle growth is a complex process that involves many physiological changes. However, in a nutshell, it’s all about the positive balance between muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown.
- Muscle protein synthesis is largely stimulated with the presence of the branched-chain amino acid leucine (leucine is the key amino acid that triggers the response of muscle growth).
Fortunately, there are dozens of scientific literature that explain the effects of alcohol on muscle protein synthesis (silver lining!)
Now watch this.
Dr. Charles H. Lang from the Penn State College of Medicine documented the effects of acute and chronic alcohol consumption on muscle protein synthesis in a study.
(Keep in mind that was acute alcohol ingestion).
The participants were divided into four groups:
- Water with water
- Water with alcohol
- Leucine with water
- Leucine with alcohol
In the graph below you can see the results.
- A group that consumed leucine with water had significantly increased muscle protein synthesis by around 25%.
- On the other hand, a group that consumed leucine with alcohol had markedly decreased protein synthesis by around 70%.
Alcohol does slow down the process
So there you have it. Alcohol does kill gains and can slow down your progress.
Other studies by Dr. Lang
“Acute alcohol intoxication appears to have a progressive inhibitory effect on muscle protein synthesis by partially preventing the leucine-induced redistribution of eIF4E in skeletal muscle”.Lang, Charles H, (2005)
(Hey, this doesn’t mean you should abandon your glass of wine. Some studies have shown that alcohol in moderation does have positive effects. More on that later.)
However, please remember that lower muscle protein synthesis is only one of many many reasons why alcohol is bad for muscle growth.
How does alcohol kill muscle gains?
- Beer and liquor do kill your muscle gains because alcohol consumption reduces testosterone levels, as well as inhibits adaptation to exercise and recovery from training.
- Alcohol also has a negative effect on sleep, and hydration status, which can reduce the performance and quality of your workouts.
Of course, everything is down to moderation.
Just because a glass of wine together with dinner can improve your morning glucose levels, it does not mean that drinking a whole bottle will show better results (wink).
Alcohol lowers testosterone levels
Overall, drinking alcohol can kill gains because in the long term it can reduce testosterone levels, as well as reduce grip strength, decrease force performance, and decrease strength performance.
- Testosterone is a sex hormone that is controlled by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland activity.
- Studies have shown that alcohol can increase cortisol and reduce testosterone levels by interfering with the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal and gonadal axes (source).
Dr. Haugvad Anders from the Jessenius Faculty of Medicine in Martin, Slovakia documented the effects of low and high doses of alcohol on testosterone levels after resistance training.
People were divided into three groups:
- Low dose (around 0.7 g of alcohol per kg)
- High dose (around 1.2 g of alcohol per kg)
In the graph above you see the levels of testosterone in all three groups after 12 and 24 hours following the resistance training.
As you can see, in all three groups, the resistance training significantly increased serum testosterone (Haugvad, Anders et al. 2014).
It matters how much you drink
For the record, the difference between low and high doses is quite significant. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
- A low dose of alcohol for the 180 lbs male around 56 grams is equivalent to 3.5 “standard” drinks.
- For the 140 lbs females, that’s 37.8 grams (2 standard drinks).
On the other hand.
- A high dose of alcohol for the 180 lbs male is around 97.2 grams is equivalent to 7 standard drinks, whereas for 140 lbs female that is 75.6 grams of alcohol (4 standard drinks).
Alcohol dehydrates the body
Overall, alcohol does kill gains by dehydrating the body and has a negative effect on cognitive functions.
Changes in total body water alter cardiovascular, thermoregulatory, central nervous system, and metabolic functions.
- Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it removes fluids from your blood through your renal system, at a much quicker rate than other liquids.
- If you don’t drink enough water with alcohol, you can become dehydrated quickly.
Not only that.
Drinking water is especially important for the elderly because, with age, there is a decreased thirst sensation (people are not as thirsty as they used to thanks to the dysfunction of the thirst-regulating mechanism).
In fact, some data suggest that lower water intake is the cause of sarcopenia (loss of muscle) and a possible risk factor in the elderly population.
Other studies have shown that “hypohydration limits strength, power, and high-intensity endurance and, therefore, is an important factor to consider when attempting to maximize muscular performance in athletic, military, and industrial settings” (Judelson et al. 2007).
Alcohol disrupts sleep
It is very important to understand the difference between the quality of sleep and reduced time to fall asleep (also called sleep onset latency).
- Alcohol does help to fall asleep quicker, however, it also has disruptive effects on sleep homeostasis.
- When it comes to the gym, poor sleep does have a negative impact on energy and performance.
Alcohol does influence your gains in the gym because it severely disrupts sleep, especially during the second half of the night.
Studies have shown that chronic sleep loss is a potent catabolic stressor, increasing the risk of metabolic dysfunction and loss of muscle mass and function.
In other words, disrupted sleep has a domino effect on other areas that can inhibit muscle growth.
Dr. Séverine Lamon from the Deakin University in Geelong, Australia documented the effect of acute sleep deprivation on skeletal muscle protein synthesis and the hormonal environment (Lamon et al. 2021).
NOTE: It is important to highlight that results below were shown after a single night of sleep deprivation trial.
- Sleep deprivation reduced the postprandial muscle protein synthesis rate by 18%.
- Sleep deprivation reduced testosterone levels by 24%.
- Sleep deprivation increased cortisol levels by 21%.
As you can imagine, reduced testosterone, reduce muscle protein synthesis, and elevated cortisol levels all contribute to impaired muscle growth.
Of course, in the perspective of 6-12 months, one night of bad sleep is not gonna make a huge difference in your gains. However, if that’s something that happens on a regular basis, then your hard work may not pay off.
Please note that I’m not here to tell anyone how to live their life. I believe life is to be lived to some extent. I’m just the exercise physiologist trying to describe the consequences.
Is it all that bad?
- In general, drinking alcohol in moderation does not mean it will ruin your muscle gain, but it can significantly reduce your progress.
- Consuming alcohol has been shown to dehydrate the body, as well as to interrupt sleep, which has a negative effect on performance.
- Acute alcohol consumption has a short-term effect and if consumed in moderation can be a part of a healthy lifestyle.
- In fact, some data suggest that alcohol in small amounts helps to improve insulin sensitivity.
According to American Diabetes Association, moderate alcohol consumption is related to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, may decrease fasting insulin, and improve insulin sensitivity (source).
Not only that.
The same study has shown that people who drink alcohol in moderation had significantly lower fasting insulin concentrations, compared to people to did not drink.
- Like everyone else, I like to enjoy my occasional glass of wine with the evening meal.
- However, I also believe that one of the fastest ways to kill your gains, inhibit muscle growth, waste money, and get progressively weaker is to drink alcohol after the workout.
- In general, alcohol does kill muscle gains because it disrupts muscle protein metabolism and reduces mTORC1-mediated signaling.
- It also lowers testosterone levels, and hydration status and can disrupt sleep quality. All these aspects can lead to lower performance and reduced total training volume.