Your body is like a finely tuned engine. To keep your body functioning well, you need to also know how substances affect it and which ones can cause a glitch in the system. One substance that has a huge impact on that system is alcohol.
As a person who is interested in maintaining optimum health and well-being, you need to know just what the effects of alcohol are on your body. Too often, people follow a clean nutritional plan that is geared towards their physical goals, be it to lose fat, gain muscle or both, train their butts off in and out of the gym, take the right supplements and do all the other things needed to achieve success, only to sabotage all of that good work by pouring too much alcohol down their throats.
In this article, we discover what alcohol does to your body, both physically and psychologically. We will also consider the effect that alcohol has on specific fitness goals, such as losing fat or gaining muscle. Finally, we’ll present some common-sense guidelines that will allow you to enjoy alcohol without it adversely affecting your life.
How Alcohol Affects your Body
Within minutes of alcohol entering your body, it infiltrates the bloodstream, the brain, the liver, pancreas, kidneys, lungs and every other organ and tissue system. The strength of the drink will have an impact on the absorption rate. Drinks that contain 10-20% of alcohol are absorbed the fastest. Stronger and weaker drinks are absorbed more slowly.
Strength of Alcohol in Drinks
- Beer = 4-6%
- Alcopops = 6-9%
- Wine = 9-15%
- Distilled Spirits = 37.5-40%
The temperature of the alcohol also affects its absorption. Warm alcohol is absorbed faster than cold.
Almost as soon as you have some alcohol, it affects the central nervous system. It begins by depressing the inhibitory centers of the brain. We feel more relaxed and confident. Often a feeling of being able to ‘let loose’ is experienced.
As a result of the lessening of inhibitions, a person may talk more confidently, leading to a euphoric effect. However, as tolerance increases, larger amounts of alcohol are required to achieve the same effect. Also, in many people, as soon as the euphoric feeling has worn off, negative rebound effects are experienced. These may include feelings of depression, guilt, and anxiety that may have been suppressed by the alcohol.
Alcohol and Your Brain
The effect of drinking is like having a weight on the brain that forces it to work harder. Imagine a tray of drinks on top of a spring. When the alcohol begins to act, there will be a force down that the brain has to counteract by pushing upwards to maintain the same balance point. When the effects of the alcohol disappear, the spring shoots up because the brain has not had enough time to readjust. For that reason, it appears that the nervous system works faster. Ultimately, withdrawal symptoms will appear . . .
- Hand tremors
- Hot/cold sweats
Different parts of the brain are affected differently, with some being more sensitive to it than others. As the quantity of alcohol in the bloodstream increases, however, more and more parts of the brain are affected.
Alcohol affects the brain centers in the following order:
- Cerebral cortex
- Limbic system
The cerebral cortex is the largest part of the brain. It is where thought processing and consciousness takes place. It also controls most of the voluntary muscle movements of the body. Alcohol affects the cerebral cortex to make a person more talkative and less inhibited. It also slows down though processes, blunts the five senses and numbs our physical pain threshold.
The limbic system is made up of the hippocampus and septal area. It controls memory and emotions. Both of these are negatively impaired by alcohol.
The cerebellum is the center of muscle movement. If it is not functioning properly, our movements become jerky and uncontrolled and we lose our balance.
The hypothalamus coordinates chemical and endocrine functions via the pituitary gland. Alcohol will increase urine excretion by inhibiting the secretion of a hormone that helps the kidneys reabsorb water. It will also affect sexual function. While arousal is increased, performance is decreased.
The medulla controls all of our involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, and temperature. Alcohol can make a person feel sleepy, lower the rate of breathing, blood pressure, and body temperature.
Alcohol and Your GI Tract
The purpose of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract is to break down ingested food and provide absorption of nutrients, then to excrete the waste that is left over. Even in a healthy person, once alcohol is introduced, interesting things begin to happen. As the alcohol directly contacts the lining of the GI tract, it may lead to mucosal damage causing diarrhea, or even bleeding within the tract.
Once mucosal damage occurs, digestion is disturbed and nutrients are not absorbed as efficiently into the body. Often this is seen in alcoholics who lose weight while still maintaining a ‘beer gut.’ Not only does this damage prevent nutrients from being absorbed, it also increases the risk of toxins passing into the blood or lymph, causing damage not only to the liver but to other organs as well.
Alcohol makes the liver unable to absorb amino acids properly, hampering its effectiveness. It then cannot produce the protein that is needed by the body to function properly. Also, alcohol increases the amount of fat in the blood. Fatty infiltration into the liver causes liver damage. The increased fat in the bloodstream is known as hyperlipidemia and can also be a risk factor for heart disease and high blood pressure.
When alcohol is absorbed by the body, it releases a substance called acetaldehyde. This poisonous substance damages the pancreas. One of the jobs that the pancreas does is to contribute to the process of turning food into energy. It secretes enzymes, insulin, and glycogen. Excessive alcohol consumption results in swelling in the pancreas and surrounding blood vessels. This causes the condition known as pancreatitis. Pancreatitis stops the pancreas from working and can lead directly to diabetes. If left unchecked it can cause death.
Often when alcohol consumption is high, food intake is reduced. This may be from forgetting to eat due to a lack of appetite. This will not only result in reduced energy but can also cause mood swings and mild depression.
There may also be an increase in the free radical activity in the body. Free radicals are scavengers that will attach to cells and start to oxidize them, a process a bit like fruit rotting or a car rusting.
Other Bodily Effects
Alcohol has a high glycaemic index. As a result, it leaves too much sugar in the blood. That, in itself, can contribute to the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Changes in metabolism cause the body to become acidic making it difficult to lose weight and allowing the disease to flourish.
Alcohol will reduce the flow of blood to muscle cells. This can lead to a feeling of aches and pains, especially during the period that you are recovering from a hangover. At the same time, blood flow will increase to the stomach and intestines, resulting in an uncomfortable ‘acid’ stomach.
Increased blood flow to the skin will also take place. Blood flow to the skin increases sweating. As a result, body heat is lost and the body temperature can fall below normal. Alcohol may also irritate the lining of the stomach which can lead to vomiting.
How Alcohol Affects You Psychologically?
The following negative psychological effects may occur with heavy alcohol usage:
When a person is unable to concentrate, feels extremely sad, guilty, helpless and hopeless, he is experiencing depression. At times a person may turn to alcohol to block out feelings of depression. However, since alcohol actually inhibits the central nervous system, the opposite effect occurs.
Poor Self Image
When people have a poor self-image, they lack confidence. Often, they turn to alcohol for a boost in confidence. However, this ‘pseudo-confidence’ is short-lived and will require larger and larger quantities to keep the good feeling going. Even those who have a reasonably good self-image often lose self-respect as their drinking increases, experiencing feelings of guilt.
Self-reproach is a negative feeling of inadequacy. It often shows up as a result of alcohol addiction. However, alcohol may be used to blot out guilty feelings related to other areas of a person’s life.
Symptoms of anxiety include uneasiness, sweating, increased heart rate and insomnia. Alcohol has been shown to increase anxiety, as the drinking itself can lead to anxiety-provoking situations.
This is one of the most common reactions to alcohol. It can be attributed to the social reinforcement of drinking or fear of being stigmatized.
Emotional extremes may occur, including:
Social inadequacy can be the result of addictive behavior where a loss of coping mechanisms creates a use for alcohol as a substitute.
Often the drinker blames others and uses them as an excuse for continuing to drink excessively. Sometimes the manipulation is more subtle, like suggesting an outing that will involve alcohol.
Alcohol and Sleep
Alcohol causes a raft of societal problems. One of the most personal effects of drinking, however, occurs right in the bedroom. Alcohol will prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Ironically, many people actually use alcohol to help them overcome insomnia. What these people don’t realize is that, while alcohol will help them fall asleep, once they’ve metabolized alcohol two to three hours after falling asleep, the alcohol will cause fragmentation of their sleep.
During the second half of the night, your sleep cycle increases its periods of rapid eye motion (REM) sleep. This affects your learning process and memory consolidation.
When you’ve been drinking close to bed-time, you will also have to wake up throughout the night to use the bathroom. This a recipe for a sluggish, non-rejuvenating and disappointing night’s sleep that see you dragging your tail around all morning. That is not what you want!
Alcohol and Weight Loss
If you are trying to rid your physique of body fat, alcohol is going to be one of your worst enemies. Unlike most everything else that you allow to go down your throat, it contains zero proteins, carbohydrates or fats. In other words, it has no nutritional benefit whatsoever – and every gram of alcohol adds 7 calories to your system.
Alcohol is a fuel for the body, and it is the first fuel to burn. That means that it will burn instead of fat, postponing your ability to burn off those unwanted fat calories.
Alcohol puts almost twice as many calories per gram into your body than carbs and protein (7 versus 4). And those calories are a lot easier to consume than the solid foods that we have to eat to get macronutrients into our system. As a result, it is extremely easy to take in hundreds, even thousands of zero nutrition calories from alcohol in an evening.
As we have already discovered, alcohol lowers the inhibitions. One of the effects of this is that people eat more when they are drinking. And the foods that are normally consumed on these occasions are those that are high in simple carbs. All of this a sure-fire recipe for fat gain.
We have seen that alcohol has an adverse effect on the digestion of food. That leads to a reduced efficiency in the breaking down of fats for fuel, impeding the weight loss process.
Testosterone has a negative effect on testosterone production. Testosterone is an important hormone when it comes to fat loss, so its alcohol induced lowered release will directly impact on fat burning ability.
Alcohol and Muscle Gain
If you are serious about building muscle, you will limit the amount of alcohol you consume. Alcohol will directly impact upon the body’s ability to absorb amino acids. That is disastrous for bodybuilders, the majority of who are spending up to a hundred dollars each month to supplement their diet with amino acids. Those Friday night drinking binges are completely negating that expense.
Alcohol also reduces the body’s ability to release the hormone testosterone. This is the body’s main muscle-building hormone and the reason that bodybuilders rely on anabolic steroids. Taking a substance into your body that will lower testosterone release when you are trying to build muscle is crazy!
A Sensible Approach
If you are seriously focused on the goals of fat loss or muscle gain, you need to severely restrict your intake of alcohol. It will sabotage your gains, negating a lot of the other good work that you are doing. If you are going to have a drink, consider it as a part of your once weekly cheat meal and keep it to just one or two drinks.
For everyone else – those who are not specifically on a fat loss or muscle gain mission – a focus on cutting down on alcohol intake can improve your health and your life.
Think of a realistic goal and focus on that. If you have chosen not to drink at all, your goal might be to cut down day by day or week by week until you are no longer drinking.
Be accountable to yourself; begin a journal. Keeping a record of your alcohol consumption will help you in determining how much you really drink, and where you are most likely to drink too much, and with whom. This is strictly for your own information and should not be shared with anyone else, except at your own discretion. Keep your journal for three or four weeks to give yourself a good idea of any patterns in your drinking.
Here are a dozen tips to help you achieve success:
- Keep close tabs on your drinking at home
- Do not bring alcohol into the house or bring very little
- When you drink, slow down your consumption by eating along with it
- Follow your alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic drink such as fruit juice, soda or water
- Never drink on an empty stomach
- Never drink when you are upset
- Take a break: pick a day or two during the week where you determine not to drink at all
- Make positive notes in your journal about how you felt on days you did not drink
- Stay away from people who give you a hard time about your decision not to drink
- Learn to say no to alcoholic beverages. Telling your drinking friends, you have to stop for medical reasons can provide support from unexpected people
- Join a support group