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Booze. My sober findings.

“BOOZE” was the rather succinct message I received from one reader. And yes, I agree, why use many words when just 1 will suffice? I hope my interpretation of your message (is just 1 word technically a message?) was right, and that you’d like this week’s ‘cheat sheet’ to be about the impact booze can have on your health, or more specifically on your sporting performance?

Well, let me tell you, the findings were enough to sober me up.

I think we’re all probably aware of the bigger picture: basically alcohol can really affect your health…cancer risks being one of the greatest concerns. But, with big picture issues it’s sometimes easy to bury your head in the sand, so let’s put health and longevity aside for a moment (!) and consider the here and now, and the impact alcohol can have on your sporting performance.

Before I answer, I must flag that this week’s blog comes with a health warning: it’s a little bit depressing, and I feel like the harbinger of doom delivering it!

Here goes…

Firstly, alcohol is high in sugar, which means it contains lots of calories (seven calories a gram in fact), almost as many as pure fat. A bottle of average strength red wine = 644 calories = a McDonald's Cheeseburger and medium fries*. 2 large glasses of white wine (not only puts women over the recommended daily limit for alcohol consumption but also) provides women with nearly 20 per cent of their daily calorie allowance, at approximately 370kcals in total**. So “if your aim in the gym or through exercise is weight management, then it seems paradoxical to consume ‘empty’ calories in liquid form,” says Professor Whyte.

Alcohol can also slow down the amount of calories you’re able to burn through exercise. Your body isn’t designed to store alcohol (this was news to me) so it tries to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and that gets in the way of other processes like burning fat. Your body can’t do everything at once, so it simply prioritises.

Secondly, alcohol interferes with the way your body makes energy. When you’re breaking down alcohol (metabolizing), the liver can’t produce as much glucose, which means you have low levels of blood sugar. Exercise requires high levels of sugar to give you energy. If your liver isn’t producing enough glucose, your performance will be adversely affected. “If your body is forced to run from your supplies of fat rather than blood sugar, you will be slower and have less energy and won’t be able to exercise as intensely,” says Professor Whyte. As a result, your coordination, dexterity, concentration and reactions could be adversely affected too.

Third on the (depressing) list, is disrupted sleep.

Boozing blows your muscle recovery and performance by sapping your sleep. In a study of 93 men and women, researchers found that alcohol decreased sleep duration and increased wakefulness (particularly in the second half of the night), especially in women, whose sleep time was decreased by more than 30 minutes over the night. "Disrupting the sleep cycle can reduce your human growth hormone output - which builds muscle - by as much as 70 percent," says Piattoly.

Fourth, we have dehydration. Because alcohol is a diuretic (makes you wee), drinking too much of it can lead to dehydration because the alcohol makes your kidney produce more urine. Exercising soon after drinking alcohol can make this dehydration worse because you sweat as your body temperature rises. Double whammy.

Being hydrated when you exercise is essential to maintain the flow of blood through your body, which circulates oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. And while dehydrated you’re at greater risk of muscle pulls and strains.

My fifth and final point is possibly one for the more athletic amongst you (see how I detach myself from this category of people).

Alcohol slows your recovery after training. Hard workouts drain the glycogen stores (carbs stored in the liver and muscles) and leave your muscle tissue in need of repair.

Having alcohol in your system stalls the recovery process because it increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn decreases the levels of human growth hormone which you need to build and repair muscle tissue.

So, that’s it.

I guess I’m going to have to pour my wine collection down the sink.

Or maybe not.

Because having a healthy lifestyle HAS to allow for a bit of fun. Fun looks different for everyone, but for me, sometimes (OK, quite regularly) it takes the form of a glass of wine.

And that’s just fine, because the odd drink won’t send me wildly off course. I now allow myself 3 nights a week to drink (Thurs, Frid and Sat). Any more than that and, in terms of my exercise goals, it’d be a case of one step forward, two steps back. I don’t have the patience for that, it’s too circuitous a route to success.


*Source: Human Nutrition Research

** Heather Caswell, spokesperson for the British Nutrition Foundation

*** Professor Greg Whyte, expert in sports performance


I am not a dietician or a nutritionist, and make no claims to the contrary. What is written on this site should not be taken as fact or advice. It is merely an opinion blog.

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