Alcohol is possibly the most commonly used recreational drug alongside nicotine and caffeine. Around 85.6% of people in the United States drink alcohol at some point in their lifetime. It’s a common part of life for many people and an important cultural touchstone for others. Drinking alcohol is actually a naturally occurring chemical called ethanol, and it’s the only one of the class of drugs called ethanol that humans are able to consume. It’s thought that humans are adapted to be able to drink alcohol so that we can eat ripened fruit that has started to ferment. Though we are able to drink some alcohol, it’s a potent chemical, and it can have many negative effects on the body. 

However, alcohol is a psychoactive substance that can have multiple effects on the brain and body. It may even have negative effects on your workout goals. Alcohol is in a class of drugs called central nervous system depressants that slow down the nervous system. Depressants can even relax muscles. What are the effects of alcohol on muscle growth? What happens if you drink alcohol after working out? Learn more about alcohol and muscle recovery

How Alcohol Consumption Impacts Muscles in the Body

The muscular system is one of the most important systems in the body.

There are more than 600 muscles in the human body that manage everything from physical stability and movement to heartbeat, digestion, and breathing. Keeping these muscles healthy and strong will help you stay fit, feel better, and live longer.

Many people who work out regularly to tone their muscles will also have a social drink or enjoy a drink or two with dinner. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this practice, as long as it is within the guidelines for moderate drinking, even a little alcohol after a workout can slow down your muscle recovery.

Standard drinks are:

  • 12 ounces of beer, or one bottle
  • 5 ounces of wine per glass
  • 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, or one shot

This is the average amount of alcohol per serving that your liver can process in one hour. Drinking more than one serving per hour will make you intoxicated, as your liver does not process that much alcohol that quickly. When there is more alcohol in your body than your liver can process, all your organ systems will be impacted, including the three types of muscles: cardiac, skeletal, and smooth.

Men can drink about two servings of alcohol per day, six days or fewer per week, and remain within moderate drinking guidelines. Women should drink no more than one serving per day, six days or fewer per week.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no such thing as “safe” alcohol consumption. The only way to ensure you do not suffer any consequences from drinking is to avoid alcohol altogether.

If you find that you cannot control your drinking, you are at risk of damaging many parts of your body, including muscle systems. In fact, drinking alcohol at all, especially after a workout, can slow down improvements to your health.

Types of Muscle Systems in the Body

There are Three Types of Muscles in the Body

  • Skeletal: These muscles are attached to your bones and help you move voluntarily by contracting when you need to walk, talk, sit, type, or perform other actions. When most people think of “muscle building” or “working out,” they think of improvements to the tone and size of these muscles.
  • Smooth: This group of muscles lines the inside of your organs and blood vessels, like your digestive tract. These move involuntarily, but they also benefit from exercise routines.
  • Cardiac: This organ system pumps blood around your body, carrying oxygen to all other organs. It is involuntary, but like smooth muscles, it benefits from working out. In fact, aerobic exercise improves your blood flow and heart regularity while also improving the strength of some of your skeletal muscles.

Developing a workout routine that improves your muscle strength should not just focus on skeletal muscles, like your biceps or calves. Aerobic exercise improves your endurance and all your major organ systems, thereby strengthening more than just the skeletal muscle group.

When you decide to start working out, reducing how much you drink or even quitting alcohol altogether can help you improve your physical health, including your muscles. If you struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD), you may experience serious damage to your muscles.

Exercise Progress Can be Slowed Down by Drinking Alcohol

Several studies suggest that drinking at different times around a workout can hamper your ability to get fit. Here are potential side effects of drinking while trying to build muscle:

Slowed Muscle Growth

Studies on rats have shown that ethanol inhibits protein synthesis, which is the process that helps to build new muscle when you work out. Alcohol was also shown to decrease muscle weight and lean body mass, and it may affect the proteins that help new muscle tissue grow. A separate animal study found that alcohol could decrease the body’s production of human growth hormone, which helps to repair muscles, by 70 percent. While these are both animal studies and involved the equivalent of binge drinking, there is a correlation in mammals between muscle tone problems and alcohol use

Slowed Muscle Recovery

People who drink after working out do not “bounce back” as quickly, according to a New Zealand study. Drinking about 1 gram of alcohol per kilogram of body weight, which is about five drinks per 160-pound human, could lead to more muscle soreness compared to those who drank fruit juice

Slowed Metabolism and Additional Body Fat

People who drink alcohol regularly, in large amounts, or both tend to put on more body fat and have slower metabolisms than those who avoid drinking. If your body does not efficiently metabolize the food you eat and instead adds body weight in the form of fat, this will slow down any improvements you make when you work out.

Dehydration

While you work out, you probably drink a lot of water. If you follow your workout with alcohol, you can cause more muscle soreness by dehydrating yourself.

Alcohol impacts your body’s ability to build muscle. Drinking too much too often, and being unable to control how much you drink, can cause damage to muscles that will affect your quality of life.

Dehydration may also have the added effect of causing you to be affected by alcohol more quickly. Food and water in your stomach and digestive system can slow down the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream. Dehydration can cause alcohol to enter your bloodstream more easily. Lower water content in your body may also increase the percentage of your blood that is made up of alcohol. Alcohol can worsen dehydration, which can intensify uncomfortable side effects like hangovers. 

Alcohol and Fat Storage

Most weight loss programs recommend cutting down on alcohol intake to help you lose weight. But why would alcohol, even very low-calorie liquors, affect your weight and cause weight gain?

Humans have been drinking alcohol for ages and we have some adaptations that help us process it. But it is treated as a toxin. The body has no way to store alcohol, so it needs to be processed and removed immediately. When you drink alcohol, it is absorbed into your bloodstream by your intestines. Then it makes its way to your liver, where it’s broken down and eliminated from your body. Because there is no way to store alcohol, your body prioritizes processing it ahead of other things. Fats and sugars you consume along with alcohol are stored to be processed later as your body focuses on removing alcohol from your system. 

For that reason, it’s very difficult to lose weight when you drink regularly. And you may store fat and gain weight more easily. High-calorie beverages like mixed drinks or beer can cause you to store more fats and sugars in and of themselves. The carbs in a beer are stored while the alcohol is processed. But low-calorie liquors can also slow down the processing of other foods you eat alongside your alcoholic drinks. 

When you drink, alcohol also increases the release of a chemical called galanin, which makes you crave fatty foods. In combination with the fact that alcohol causes you to store more fat and lowers your inhibitions, a post-drinking fatty food binge can really cause you to pack on some pounds. 

Severe Physical Problems from Alcohol Abuse

“Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can lead to many diseases, including heart damage and liver failure. Even the skeletal muscles can suffer damage if you struggle with AUD regardless of how often you work out. ”

About 33 percent of people who struggle with an addiction to alcohol develop alcoholic myopathy, which is a breakdown of proximal muscle tissue, the muscles around the torso. Signs of acute alcoholic myopathy may appear after binge drinking and blacking out.

  • Muscle pain
  • Tenderness
  • Swelling
  • Physical weakness

This is a sign that poisoning from drinking too much alcohol is breaking down muscle tissue. In extreme cases, muscles in the throat, diaphragm, and upper chest will also break down, which will feel painful.

If you drink so much alcohol that you pass out and don’t move for several hours, this constricts blood flow to the muscle groups, which can cause further damage.

Alcoholic myopathy will also damage the heart muscles, leading to cardiomyopathy, and the kidneys, leading to renal failure.

Drinking too much may cause ataxia, which is damage to the brain that can affect muscle control, balance, and voluntary movements. Most forms of ataxia manifest as problems swallowing, speaking, and moving the eyes. Once damage to the brain occurs, it is hard to fix. This can cause problems later in life if you want to work out to get healthy.

Regular sleep and moving through enough sleep cycles improves all sorts of body functions, including immune system health, brain and memory management, and muscle tissue repair, especially after working out. Between seven and 10 hours per night is recommended by most sleep specialists.

Drinking too much — in one sitting or regularly drinking large amounts — can harm your ability to sleep well. Alcohol abuse can lead to problems falling asleep and staying asleep, both during periods of heavy drinking and during alcohol withdrawal.

Passing out from drinking too much is not the same thing as falling asleep, as the brain does not perform the same functions.

Get Help to End Alcohol Abuse

If you struggle to control how much you drink and how often, you may have alcohol use disorder (AUD). This affects all areas of your life — not just your physical health, but your mental health, your financial stability, and your personal relationships as well.

Drinking in moderation may slow down your fitness progress. If you want the best results from your workouts, abstain from alcohol.

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