Is Drinking Killing My Gains? How Alcohol Affects Muscle Building

Is Drinking Killing My Gains? How Alcohol Affects Muscle Building

With all our awesome freedom, we have to opportunity to go out and have a brew whenever we want.  However, a lot of people are of the opinion that it creates a significant obstacle to your sweet, sweet, gym gains.  Thankfully, I have a wealth of knowledge at my disposal (the internet) and I know how to find peer reviewed articles (woohoo, being a student!) to really get down to the truth of it all.

What Exactly Is Alcohol?

So before we even talk about whether or not it does something such as interfering with protein synthesis or other cool stuff like that, let’s begin with a basic introduction to alcohol otherwise known as ETOH.  ETOH is the actual compound that gives us that awesome feeling, “ETOH is an acronym for ethyl alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is also referred to as ethanol. Ethyl alcohol is the type of alcohol found in all alcoholic beverages.” (2). Fun but useless fact right, so here is where it starts to become a bit more relevant.

Alcohol and Fat Burning

Each gram of ETOH garners 7kcal worth of energy (1) and if you do the math on your beer’s nutritional label you will see that the amount of calories from carbs does not add up to the total caloric value of the serving size.  This means if all you are looking at to track your drinks is carbs, then you are overconsuming calorically. You can also find claims like this one accompanying facts online concerning alcohol “Alcohol suppresses the body’s ability to burn fat, so if you are trying to lose fat, consuming alcohol is counter-productive.” (2).  That is probably this first and easiest explanation for why drinking may not be helping with your fitness goals.

Alcohol and MPS

The second possibility is the idea that while your body processes the ETOH muscle protein synthesis (MPS for short, meaning the growth of new skeletal muscle) is being inhibited.  This idea or rather truth, can be shown in studies “intoxication decreases rates of skeletal muscle protein synthesis predominately in type II muscle fibers at least in part through impairment of mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR)-dependent translation initiation…”  (3).

When considering this, the next question would be okay, but for how long?  The same study also looked at that aspect up to 12 hours “Alcohol suppressed protein synthesis in both non-stimulated and stimulated muscle at 30 min (60%),4h (75%), and 12 h (40%) compared with time-matched control values.” (3).  These studies were done on mice and had high levels of alcohol consumption, so I’m sorry to say it, but binge drinking is going to be an issue if you’re trying to get the most out of your time at the gym.

How About Moderate Alcohol Consumption?

With high levels of alcohol consumption having been discussed, I can now address a more moderate level of alcohol consumption, because let’s be honest, for most of us, having a drink with friends is a part of our normal social life.  The same authors, in a different study also make note that “evidence supports an alcohol-mediated loss of muscle mass and function…” (4) before going on to say in relation to overloading of the plantaris muscle “moderate consumption of alcohol did not prevent this growth nor did it antagonize the rate of protein synthesis and mTORC1 signaling increased by overload” (4).  It is restated as such “despite the differential modulation of autophagic signaling following overload, moderate alcohol consumption did not impair muscle growth as was originally hypothesized” (4).  Based on this study, a moderate alcohol intake most likely is not going to interfere with your body’s ability to gain more muscle mass.

Everything in Moderation

A lot of people in the health and fitness industry will try and tell you that like many other dietary methods, it is all or nothing.  I however, believe that when we really want to live healthy lifestyle, moderation reigns supreme.  We see in the literature that moderate alcohol intake does not seem to interfere with your body’s ability to increase muscle size, at least not in a scientifically significant amount.  Perhaps it may in fact be better to forego alcohol consumption altogether as to have no chance of certain signaling pathways being impaired.  However, the science seems to show us that there is no need to beat ourselves up over a diet that includes moderate consumption.  With that in mind, we must make sure that we properly account for alcohol consumption in our overall caloric intake as to prevent excess weight gain.

Take-Home Message

No need to feel ashamed of the every once in a while, or the moderate alcohol consumption.  It doesn’t seem to really be keeping you from all those wonderful gains.  Just keep your calories in mind and you should be able to keep making progress towards all those fitness goals.  Now, who is ready to cheers to progress with me?



Writer and expert