How many times have you exercised and had a beer, or other alcoholic beverage, immediately afterward? I have – many times. In some of the running clubs I have belonged to, it was tradition to have a beer (or two) after the race, and reflect, with fellow runners, the trials and tribulations associated with that day’s race – or, simply, to solve the problems of the world.
Exercising and drinking appear to be linked by tradition. For example, members of the Hash House Harriers describe their organization as a drinking club with a running problem. However, if your goal is to lose weight, alcohol is not the drink of choice to make that goal happen. Switch to water and you will have better results.
Your body’s fuel of choice is carbohydrates. All your systems are primed to start using carbohydrates for immediate energy. Your carbohydrates not used for immediate energy are converted to fat for later usage. Your body can operate on fat for energy when carbohydrates are not available – think of a low-carb, high-fat, high-protein diet.
Alcohol adds a new dimension to the equation of losing weight. Alcohol is converted into a chemical compound called acetate. It becomes your body’s preferred energy source – above all other energy sources. Alcohol is converted to acetate in the liver. If you want to lose weight, consider abstaining from alcohol during your weight loss program.
Alcohol in Excess
Alcohol, in excess, can damage your liver, which creates many other problems. Alcohol is not part of the normal human diet. As such, your body doesn’t really know what to do with it, per se. As a result, your body will ‘bump’ alcohol (think acetate) to the top of the list of energy sources to get rid of it as quickly as possible.
‘Beer belly’ physiques lead us to believe that alcohol is fattening. Alcohol is not fattening by itself because it is not stored as fat. It adds extra calories to your daily intake without allowing you access to burn those stored fat calories. Over time, the extra stored fat adds up and your beer-belly physique grows.
Alcohol and Appetite
Alcohol also increases your appetite. After drinking alcohol your fat metabolism shuts down. You are putting ‘on hold’ the fats and carbohydrates you already consumed, and now your body wants you to eat more. You can’t win.
What if you drink alcohol with a meal? Doesn’t that temper the effect of alcohol? That’s what I’ve heard all my life. That’s why I have a glass of wine with my dinner. Researchers have found that you will eat more food when consuming alcohol, especially wine, with a meal. Now I find out that alcohol causes me to eat more, restricts my body’s access to burning fat, and increases my overall caloric intake – at that meal. It also increases your craving for a snack later in the evening.
Alcohol and Testosterone
Alcohol has other effects on your overall health. Your testosterone production slows down noticeably after consuming alcohol. Scientists studied healthy adult males after they drank alcohol. The results showed that alcohol lowered testosterone levels for a minimum of 24 hours and in some cases as much as 48 hours.
Is this a bad thing? Testosterone is extremely important in your fat burning process. It doesn’t directly burn fat but is required in your body’s processes to build your muscle mass and strength.
Decreased testosterone levels lead to reduced muscle mass and strength, which, in turn, leads to higher fat accumulations, usually around the abdomen. Larger, stronger muscles require more calories for daily maintenance. This is good for people trying to lose weight.
Alcohol and Cortisol
Testosterone also blocks the receptors for cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that promotes fat storage and reduces your muscle mass and strength. Alcohol causes cortisol levels to increase and interferes with your normal hormone balance. Cortisol levels can also increase with stress, depression, fasting, stimulants and lack of quality sleep.
Moderation is desired with most things in life. Cortisol is a natural steroid produced in your body. Cortisol acts as an energy management system – it selects the right type and amount of energy source to be used to meet your daily physiological demands. Your body prefers carbohydrates over fat for an energy source. Cortisol is responsible for that selection. You need cortisol in moderation for a healthy body. You don’t need excessive amounts of it.
Cortisol is responsible for delivering the right kind of energy to your working muscles. When carbohydrates and fat sources are low, cortisol can direct your body to use protein as an energy source. Cortisol is a very important hormone. However, an overabundance of cortisol can cause problems – increased fat storage, increased blood sugar levels, suppressed immune system, as well as many other serious conditions.
Alcohol increases cortisol, as does stress. It doesn’t matter what causes your cortisol levels to increase. When stress levels are high, cortisol directly affects your ability to lose weight. Your fat cells produce an enzyme that converts inactive cortisone to active cortisol. Visceral fat cells, those located in your abdominal area, contain more of this enzyme than subcutaneous fat cells, those located just under your outer layer of skin.
Cortisol and Obesity
Obesity has its own set of problems with cortisol. Obese people have a higher percentage of visceral fat compared to the non-obese. The visceral fat cells contain more blood vessels than subcutaneous fat cells and four times the number of cortisol receptors.
Cortisol, in overabundance, in your visceral fat cells causes more fat to be stored. It is thought that cortisol is the primary cause for the enlargement of your fat cells. Higher cortisol levels affect the production of your growth hormones, as well as your testosterone production.
People with high levels of cortisol choose to eat foods high in carbohydrates and fats. High levels of cortisol have been shown to cause fat storage to be withdrawn from your subcutaneous fat locations and deposited into your visceral fat cells deep within your abdominal wall. When cortisol levels become extremely high, you may experience muscle atrophy, poor bone repair, increased bone loss, low energy, and a depressed immune system.
Many elderly people have chronic pain associated with a variety of problems. Chronic pain causes cortisol levels in your body to rise. High levels of testosterone block cortisol receptors, and hence, thwart the effects of cortisol. High levels of testosterone and low levels of cortisol are ideal for your overall health. Low levels of testosterone and high levels of cortisol cause you to store more fat.
Alcohol Before Exercise
Drinking alcohol before exercising has its own set of problems. Assume you are going to eat a carbohydrate intensive meal (pasta with bread for example) to build up your glycogen reserves – the energy source your muscles use. Many runners do this before a long-distance race. Also, assume that you decide to have a beer or glass of wine with that carbohydrate intensive meal. What happens?
That pre-race alcoholic drink causes your body to shut down your fats and carbohydrates as an energy source. Your stored glycogen will be used up at a higher rate than normal. Since you can’t process the carbohydrates to restock your muscles, you have to live with the glycogen stockpile you had before you ate your pre-race meal.
Your running endurance will not be the same due to the alcoholic drink you decided to have with your meal. The same situation (low running endurance) also arises when you are on a low carbohydrate diet.
I noticed this when I was on the Atkins’ Diet and did not know the cause. Before Atkins, I could easily run eight miles on a practice day without much effort and felt pretty good afterward. While on the Atkins’ Diet, my glycogen supplies were exhausted much earlier and I could barely run two miles comfortably – and, I would feel much more tired after the short run.
Alcohol and Dehydration
Alcohol acts as a diuretic – it dehydrates your body. Hangovers are thought to be caused by excessive dehydration. Your body needs to be hydrated to function properly. Add exercise, especially intense exercise, and combine it with alcohol consumption and you interfere with your normal body functions.
Your body needs water to build muscle as well as to eliminate fat. Dehydration affects cell and fat metabolism. Dehydration affects your body’s ability to lose fat. Even though you are consuming liquids (in alcoholic beverages), you are dehydrating your body.
Most people begin to think or feel that they are thirsty when they approach 1-2% loss in body weight through dehydration. That 1-2% loss in body water weight can translate to a 10-20% loss in overall performance (mental, physical and emotional). Researches have determined that alcoholic drinks in excess of 4% alcohol (8 Proof) lead to higher rates of dehydration, especially within the first four hours.