Drinking has two faces, kind of a yin and yang matter. In reasonable, low doses it has potential health benefits. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it makes you crash your (was it yours?) car into a tree at 70 mhp and relieve yourself in the swimming pool of your neighbors wearing nothing but a smile.
But I guess the key question on your mind is how much you can get away with booze before NASA schedules its first robotic exploration of your belly.
Drinking = Fat?
Trust me, this is not the easiest question to answer.
Alcohol (more properly known as ethanol) is technically a macronutrient like carbs, protein, and fat, with seven calories per gram. On paper, where there're calories, there should be usable energy...and this is where sh*t gets tricky.
Alcohol is certainly not an essential nutrient; the body doesn't need it for growth and survival (or anything else actually) and, unlike cars with internal combustion engines, you just can't use ethanol for fuel. The human body perceives it as a toxin, and fights to get rid of it once ingested. This is why it has a higher thermic effect than other macros (it takes more calories to process than carbs, fat, or even protein).
A pretty well designed study found that men consuming an average of four beers per day took in about 15% more calories than a matched group of non-drinkers. The two groups had identical amounts of physical activity. So, logically, you'd think that the drinkers packed on some pounds.
Yet, they did not. Both groups had the same body-mass index, in spite of all those extra calories for the drinkers.
Then maybe alcohol has an incognito life as a fat-burning aid masquerading as an addictive vice? Meh, doubtfully. Nobody's ever measured what would happen if you matched up two groups of drinkers and non-drinkers, consuming an equal number of total calories, and followed them over the long run.
Another study compared two weight-loss diets (1,500 calories per day, in other words my mid-afternoon snack). Subjects on the first diet got 10 percent of their total calories from wine – 150 calories, or just over a glass per day. The second group got 10 percent from grape juice. After three months, the wine group lost almost a kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) more total body weight , although the difference wasn't statistically significant.
The main issue with said data is that not a single word had been spent about body composition. They lost one extra kilogram of...?
While alcohol stimulates more calorie expenditure, it also suppresses the oxidation of dietary fat (you burn more overall calories but less fat).
A recent line of research suggests that alcohol activates AMPk, a metabolism-regulating enzyme, that helps you lose fat by increasing insulin sensitivity. Mere speculation so far, don't count on it.
Alcohol Muscle Mass & Testosterone
Does alcohol melt away muscle mass? It definitely can, but you really have to drink lots. Most of the research on alcohol's effect on muscle protein metabolism is on alcoholics who chronically consume more than 100 grams of ethanol – no less than eight medium beers – per day. Two-thirds of these drunks end up with "alcohol myopathy," a condition characterized by muscle weakness and atrophy. The daily high alcohol intake impairs essential nutrients absorption and hasten myofibrillar degeneration, but casual drinkers aren't likely to lose their beloved muscle mass.
Another study looked into the acute effect of alcohol intoxication on post-exercise hormonal response, using trained lifters as subjects. After their workout, half the subjects were given the equivalent of five drinks. The researchers then monitored all the subjects' hormone levels for the next five hours. No differences were seen in Testosterone and other related hormones in either group. Cortisol was elevated in the ethanol group, but only for a short time frame.
Anecdotally, I know several bodybuilders who average two or three drinks a day and continue to get stronger and pack on muscle tissue. One of the most jacked and ripped guy I know used to drink half a bottle of red wine every night. (Compared to the rest of the stuff he's on, he probably considers it very healthy).
Could they make even better gains without the bottle? They might, maybe, but moderate alcohol consumption, or the absence of alcohol, has very little effect on the many variables that determine size and strength.
Alcohol & Exercise Performance
If it's difficult to get approval for a study in which athletes get drunk after a workout, imagine how hard it would be to get a green light when lifters or runners get drunk BEFORE. Yet, believe it or not, it has been done!
Subjects were given the equivalent of about six drinks and then tested for strength and endurance. Actually, they were tested before, during, and 24 and 48 hours after ingesting the alcohol. Contrary to what the researchers expected, the alcohol had no observable effect on any of the strength tests. Additionally, there was no increase in creatine kinase, an indicator of muscle damage.
In a similar study, the equivalent of about five drinks prior to testing had no effect on isometric strength, muscle stiffness, muscle soreness, or creatine kinase activity compared to the study's alcohol-free group.
In endurance athletes, alcohol doesn't seem to interfere with glycogen replenishment after depletion. One study gave endurance athletes the equivalent of 10 drinks following a depleting workout. There was a statistically insignificant lag in glycogen resynthesis at the eight-hour mark, and none after 24 hours.
It's encouraging to know that if a runner is dumb enough to slam down 10 drinks after a race when he knows he has another in eight hours, his body will still store enough energy to compete. How forgiving mother nature can be.
Loading up energy through alcohol?
Dehydration is another big issue for athletes who like to get hammered the night before a game. Here's what you need to know and keep in mind: The more concentrated the alcohol source, the greater its ability to dehydrate you.
For example, drinks containing 4% alcohol or more increase urine output. That includes just about anything stronger than light beer, FYI. Hard liquor has an especially potent diuretic effect. For example, an ounce of a 40% ethanol beverage contains 10 milliliters of ethanol and 15 milliliters of water. Yet study subjects ended up pissing out 100 milliliters, or four times as much as they poured in! This may actually be implemented a few hours before stepping on stage tho. View it as a tastier Lasix.
Granted, binge drinking and performance generally don't mix well, but once again, it's endurance-type work that takes the biggest hit. Research on rugby players after a night of heavy drinking shows that aerobic performance suffers badly, while anaerobic performance isn't affected that much.
Did I mention Health Benefits?
Ok , we all know that serious alcohol abuse brings with it the risk of addiction, liver disease, heart failure, and a life rich in fucked-upedness (condone the neologism). Goes without saying, right? On the flip side (yes, there's one), moderate alcohol consumption seems to have measurable health benefits.
Moderate beer consumption (around 15-16 ounces a day) improves immune response according to two recent studies. Another one showed it improves concentrations of blood lipids. Drinking three glasses of beer a day reduced C-reactive protein (strongly linked to inflammation and heart disease) and fibrinogen (linked to blood clotting and thrombosis) by almost 40%. This points to an anti-inflammatory mechanism that might partially explain the link between moderate drinking and lower risk of heart disease. Other studies have shown the cardioprotective benefits of roughly one or two glasses of red wine per day. The nutrients in wine (such as reservatrol and proanthocyanidin) and the alcohol benefit your heart in different ways. These nutrients fight oxidative stress, while the alcohol improves vasodilation (opening up your blood vessels) and blood flow. Other benefits include increased HDL and reduced platelet aggregation, better known as blood clotting. If you want to protect your heart, darker varieties of beer and wine tend to have higher polyphenol content.
On the other hand, there is NOT a whole lot of data on the potential health benefits of hard liquor. But with the little we have, the benefits appear similar for certain products. Cognac, for example, was shown in one study to increase plasma antioxidant levels. Cognac and bourbon are both rich in ellagic acid, an antioxidant with powerful anti-cancer properties. I wouldn't bank on wodka and whiskey tho.
What you should BEER in mind....
Then is beer your friend? Is wine healthy? Can you live longer and better by drinking more bourbon possibly?
Alcohol isn't essential for good heath, and there's no reason to think it improves your performance in anything (besides the ability to say emarassing stuff at the wrongest time). On the other hand, moderate drinking (up to two drinks a day) might help protect your heart without having a negative effect on your quest to look good naked (best if out of your neighbours pool).
In case you don't already drink, there's no reason to start. And if you drink a lot, you risk a lot. But if you're a just-right drinker (you drink enough to enjoy the benefits without ever waking up with a hangover [or worse, with a stranger who's equally drunk]) there's really no reason to quit.
If you drink so much that it interferes with your training, you need to cut back. If the amount you drink never interferes with anything important in your daily life, let's get together for a beer one of these days.