Misconceptions and Controversial Issues Surrounding Alcohol
There is a lot of misconceptions and controversial issues surrounding alcohol and how it affects overall health and wellness, just like the other three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat). The following section will explore and clarify some common myths and controversial topics related to alcohol.
Ethanol Helps Protect the Cardiovascular System
The regular consumption of light to moderate amounts of ethanol is believed to lower the risk of death and protect against heart disease and stroke. Red wine, in particular, has been linked to numerous health benefits, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, certain cancers, and diabetes, due to its high content of antioxidant polyphenols. Therefore, it is advised to drink one to two standard drinks of red wine daily as part of a healthy diet.
The debate on the health effects of alcohol consumption continues with conflicting views on the potential benefits of moderate alcohol consumption. While some studies suggest that light to moderate alcohol consumption can reduce total mortality and protect against cardiovascular disease and stroke, others challenge these views. A comprehensive study based on data from 195 countries analyzed between 1990 to 2016 found no significant health benefits of alcohol consumption and concluded that no level of alcohol consumption was safe. The study also revealed that alcohol consumption negatively impacts health and leads to premature death, particularly in males. These findings have significant implications for alcohol regulators, as current guidelines may overestimate the safe limit of alcohol consumption.
Alcohol Consumption Leads to Restful Sleep
The idea that drinking alcohol before bed leads to a good night’s sleep is a common belief. It’s true that ethanol has a sedative effect on the central nervous system, causing drowsiness and helping you fall asleep faster. However, alcohol can actually negatively impact the quality of your sleep once you fall asleep. It can disrupt normal sleep patterns and reduce the amount of time spent in both REM and non-REM sleep, which is important for physical and mental restoration. Additionally, while ethanol may increase deep non-REM sleep, it also decreases growth hormone secretion, which is important for physical regeneration.
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The consequences of alcohol consumption on sleep quality and quantity can negatively impact athletes. Poor sleep can reduce immune function, cognitive performance, and physical performance. In addition, it may also inhibit tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth. For athletes already facing sleep difficulties due to training, competition, travel, and other factors, avoiding or limiting alcohol before bedtime is advisable.
Alcohol Improves Athletic Performance
The idea of using alcohol to boost athletic performance dates back to ancient Greece, where it was rumored that Olympic champion Milo of Croton consumed 2.6 gallons of wine daily as part of his diet (Harris, 1966). Despite this, the practice of consuming alcohol as a performance aid persisted through the mid-20th century. However, what these athletes didn’t know was that consuming alcohol before or during exercise offers no performance benefits and can actually be detrimental, especially when consumed in high amounts.
Alcohol has no performance-enhancing benefits during physical activity and can actually have negative effects. Sprinting and simple strength tasks may not be affected at high blood alcohol concentrations (BACs), but longer duration aerobic exercises will experience reduced performance with increasing alcohol consumption. The impairments in coordination, reaction time, and decision-making at moderate BACs can compromise an athlete’s ability to perform techniques and tasks efficiently and safely during training and exercise. Thus, alcohol consumption before exercise is not recommended.
Consuming alcohol after exercise is a common occurrence, particularly among athletes who tend to binge on alcohol more frequently compared to non-athletes (Sønderlund et al., 2014; Tavolacci et al., 2016; Veliz, McCabe, & Boyd, 2016). The negative impact of alcohol on recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage has been established in male athletes who consume alcohol in moderate to high amounts (Barnes, Mündel, & Stannard, 2010a & 2010b). However, the same effect may not be seen in female athletes (Levitt et al., 2017; McLeay, Stannard, Mundel, Foskett, & Barnes, 2017). In cases where the extent of muscle damage is minimal or the type of exercise performed does not challenge the muscles, alcohol consumption in even very high doses may not significantly affect recovery (Levitt et al., 2018; Murphy, Snape, Minett, Skein, & Duffield, 2013; Prentice, Stannard, & Barnes, 2014).
Ethanol consumed in large quantities after resistance exercise can have an impact on hormone secretion and reduce the effects of protein synthesis and inflammation, which could impede progress and adaptations from resistance training. This remains unclear at present. Females may not show the same response to ethanol as males, potentially due to the influence of the hormone estrogen.
Consuming alcohol after exercise should be approached with caution as it may have an impact on recovery and subsequent performance. To minimize the effects, it’s recommended to follow normal post-exercise nutrition guidelines, including eating foods containing carbohydrates and protein before consuming alcohol. This will ensure substrates are available for glycogen resynthesis and protein synthesis, rather than being replaced by energy from ethanol. Delaying alcohol consumption and rehydrating before consuming large amounts of alcohol is also advised to minimize its negative impact on recovery.
College athletes have a higher risk of binge drinking and alcohol-related harm than other populations. Their drinking behavior varies between intramural and intercollegiate athletes, and team vs individual sport athletes. College athletes drink for various reasons such as reward, celebration, and stress relief. Education about the harm of alcohol is important, and coaches play a crucial role in reducing harmful drinking by showing concern and taking a less permissive approach.
Ethanol, the main form of alcohol in recreational beverages, is metabolized differently than other macronutrients and has no nutritional value. In moderation, alcohol can have positive effects on overall health, but excessive consumption can quickly turn harmful or deadly. The acetate produced during metabolism of ethanol can also interfere with the body’s ability to burn its own fat.
Understanding the impact of alcohol on the body as wel as the misconceptions and controversial Issues surrounding alcohol is crucial for Nutrition Coaches to help their clients make informed decisions about their alcohol consumption. It is important for coaches to be able to educate their clients on the effects of alcohol on various physiological processes, including metabolism, hydration, and hormone levels, and how these effects can be influenced by factors such as body weight, genetics, and gender. By having this knowledge, coaches can help their clients make informed choices that support their overall health and wellness goals while still allowing them to enjoy a moderate amount of alcohol.