When it comes to health, alcohol has had a pretty mixed reputation. Traditionally, many cultures have seen wine and other forms of alcohol as multi-purpose healing tonics. And then it was portrayed as a destructive, dietary villain.
Even now, modern science is pretty divided on the effects of alcohol. In small doses, there do seem to be some minor benefits to the occasional drink. But then, of course, there are many dangerous associated with over-use.
It's not really surprising, then, that this controversy has carried over into the athletic community. Again, many swear by the heart-healthy benefits of wine. At the same time, though, other experts and athletes warn that alcohol could be completely blocking your ability to build new muscle.
So, let's look specifically at this issue: How does alcohol affect hypertrophy?
The Basics on Alcohol Metabolism
Normally, when we talk about macronutrients only three things come to mind – carbohydrates, protein and fats, right? In truth, though, there are two more. One of these, not surprisingly, is water. But the last and oft-ignored macronutrient is alcohol.
This might seem a little strange since your body doesn't actually need alcohol to survive. In fact, the human body isn't even capable of processing alcohol for fuel. Because of that, though, alcohol is viewed as a toxin – something that needs to get out of your system as quickly as possible.
To get that done, alcohol becomes a primary fuel. So, before it handles any of the other nutrients that you've taken in, your body is forced to process and expel that alcohol.
Why does this matter? Let's look at some of the broader impacts of this metabolic process.
Largely because it takes priority over other – more useful – nutrients, alcohol can actually block your body from getting what it needs from your food.
In fact, this situation can get so bad that your muscles start to weaken and deteriorate. And this condition, called “alcohol myopathy” is exactly what people fear when it comes to drinking.
Here's the thing, though: you'd to need to throw back lots of alcohol to noticeably lose muscle mass. Generally, alcohol myopathy doesn't show up until people drink about 100g of alcohol (or seven drinks) each day.
But nutrients aren't the only thing to think about when discussing hypertrophy; there are also several powerful hormones involved. This, however, is a difficult topic to sort out.
For one thing, getting permission to perform studies on drunk athletes is a challenge. But, even when research teams have managed to get these studies funded and printed, the research has been confusingly mixed.
Some previous studies have reported that alcohol lowered testosterone and increased DHEA. More recent research, however, found that alcohol had no impact on the hypertrophy hormones in strength athletes. When it comes to endurance athletes, though, studies have observed a marked decrease in testosterone production.
It's important to note, though, that this was after about 10 drinks. Which is a lot.
So, with all of that considered, does alcohol impact hypertrophy? Maybe, but only if you drink a ton of it for an extended period. While even casual drinkers might experience a decrease in certain hormones related to hypertrophy, the science behind that is still pretty cloudy.