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How Alcohol Affects Your Health, Vitality and Fitness Goals (Part II)

Updated: Feb 7, 2023


For many of us, alcohol goes hand in hand with fun and relaxation. It’s part of celebrations, end-of-day winding-down rituals and happy hours, religious ceremonies…and is even a hobby for some (pairing food with just the right wine, beer or spirit).


Not surprisingly, one of the most common questions I’m asked by women approaching and transitioning through menopause is how much alcohol can they get away with and still achieve their health, fitness and body composition goals - whether that’s muscle gain or fat loss.


Being a wine lover myself, I’d love to be able to tell you to go ahead and drink as much as you want. Unfortunately, for me as well as you, new research and guidelines are suggesting that anything more than a glass or two of wine per week may not support your health.




To arm you with information for you to decide for yourself what amount of alcohol, if any, may support your health and fitness goals, I am focusing on how alcohol affects your health, vitality, hormones and body composition.



Anita and Brad Perrigo clinking wine glasses to celebrate their anniversary at White Oaks Resort Niagara Falls
How Alcohol Affects Your Health, Vitality, Fitness and Body Composition Goals

What Happens to Alcohol in the Body


You may have heard that alcohol instantly converts to fat in the body. That’s not entirely true.


Alcohol, also known as ethanol, once absorbed in the body, is ultimately converted to acetate and acetyl-coA. Acetate and acetyl-coA are not efficient fuel sources but the body will preferentially use these as fuel. So while the body is busy burning off these fuel sources and metabolites, fat and glucose (from carbohydrates) just hang around.


In other words, when we drink alcohol, fat and carbohydrate (sugar) burning come to a screeching halt.


While alcohol isn’t converted to fat instantly, your metabolism is in fat-storing mode until it can burn off the acetate and acetyl-coA.


And if you’ve ever fallen asleep after a few drinks only to find yourself wide awake around 3 am, it’s likely a result of a dip in blood sugar. Your liver and muscles don’t do a great job of storing sugar as glycogen for later which causes a delayed dip in blood sugar - hence the restless sleep and 3 am wakefulness after a night of drinking.



Health and Vitality


It’s been a commonly held belief that alcohol has certain health benefits. Last month Canadians learned from the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction that no amount of alcohol has health benefits. And to best guard your health from several types of cancer, including breast and colon cancer, heart disease or stroke, it is recommended to consume 2 or less standard drinks per week. That’s a dramatic reduction of the previous recommendations of 15 drinks per week for men and 10 drinks per week for women.


Proven ways of improving your health according to Diabetes Canada include healthy eating, being active, and being a non-smoker.


Vitality is much about bringing your full and best energy to the people and the work that are most important to you and we do that by cultivating the pillars of vitality. The pillars of vitality include healthy eating, moving well, lifestyle habits for vitality (sleep, rest, recovery, stress management, purpose + meaning) and mindset. While alcohol in moderation may help with stress management, fun and relaxation and could contribute to purpose and meaning if it is a hobby or profession such as a sommelier, in excess it more likely than not has a negative impact on the other pillars.


Alcohol and Hormones


Alcohol messes with our hormones. It causes swings in blood sugar which in turn create chronically high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), increases inflammation, and surges of insulin can worsen estrogen dominance (hello fibroids, PCOS, and endometriosis).


Adrenaline and Cortisol: Alcohol increases both adrenaline and cortisol. Increased adrenaline triggers release of sugar into the bloodstream. If you’re not wearing it off (drinking is often a fairly passive activity) it will eventually be stored as fat. Increased cortisol increases hunger cravings.


Melatonin: Alcohol lowers your levels of sleep-inducing melatonin. Pairing this with an alcohol-induced delayed low blood sugar makes for a restless lack of sleep. And we all know how a lack of sleep takes a toll on our next day cravings and energy.


Thyroid: Thyroid hormones are necessary to keep your liver functioning and processing the acetate and acetyl-coA. For those who have an underactive thyroid, effects of alcohol can escalate the interference with this functioning and processing.


Menopause: Alcohol consumption decreases certain growth hormones and progesterone, and increases estradiol and FSH. Research suggests that alcohol induced hormonal changes can make certain menopause symptoms worse, including hot flashes, sleep disruption and depression. Red wine is also seen as one of the most common triggers of hot flashes.


Body Composition


If you’re trying to build or maintain muscle mass, alcohol isn’t doing you any favours.


Those of us over 50 are already at a disadvantage for building and preserving muscle mass. Muscle mass decreases approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30 and this rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. This involuntary loss of muscle mass, strength, and function is a fundamental cause of and contributor to disability in older people.


Consumption of alcohol affects a couple of important events related to preserving lean mass and recovering from workouts: A decrease in glycogen synthesis means you’ll have less in the tank for your next workout and your muscles won’t rehydrate as well, and cytokine signals that trigger post-workout muscle repair are negatively altered.


And I think most of us can agree that our workouts are not as good after a night of drinking - that is, if we even get to the workout.



Tips for Drinking for Health, Vitality, Hormones and Body Composition


It’s up to you to decide for yourself if you want to change your drinking habits or not. While the research is guiding Canadians to drink 2 or less drinks per week to support health, we can’t know for sure what amount of alcohol has an effect on muscle gain and fat loss.


Here’s what you can do to make sure alcohol doesn’t interfere with your goals, whether you want to improve health and vitality, gain muscle and strength, or lose body fat:


1. Aim to drink less.

The research is clear that there are no health benefits of drinking alcohol. Aim to drink less by alternating or replacing alcoholic beverages with plenty of water or other non-alcoholic beverages.


2. Reach for Protein

If you have a fat loss goal, protein helps you feel full longer. And since you’re likely to store fat and sugar after drinking, stick to a snack of protein and veggies alongside your drinks. If you have Type I diabetes or are insulin dependent, consider eating carbohydrates along with your drink to prevent a delayed low blood sugar. Consult your Diabetes Educators on coming up with a solid plan.


3. Remember, every body is different

Always check in with your body. If you’re waking in the middle of night with hot flashes after an evening of drinking, try cutting it out to see what happens. Red wine also contains histamine. And if you’re under some stress and/or dealing with a heavy allergy burden (histamine raises cortisol and bogs down your liver), red wine is not gonna do you any favours.


4. Keep your goals in mind

If a fine glass of red wine with dinner or a girls night out with a margarita are something that brings you immense joy, go ahead and indulge in moderation. Just keep in mind that it will likely be easier to manage your health, vitality, hormones and body composition if you’re drinking less overall. What’s most important is to make choices that align with your personal health, goals and values.



TL;DR

Canadians are now learning that no amount of alcohol has health benefits and new guidance on alcohol and health recommends consuming two or less drinks per week. If a fine glass of red wine with dinner or a girls' night out with a margarita are something that brings you immense joy, go ahead and indulge in moderation. Just keep in mind that it will likely be easier to manage your health, vitality, and fitness if you’re drinking less overall. What’s most important is to make choices that align with your personal health, goals and values.



Want to learn more about optimizing your health and vitality in this stage of life? Join the 'Let's Talk Vitality for Women' FB Group



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