It’s a question that we get frequently, and it can be confusing, especially when there is so much information available on both sides of the issue. Primal Health expert, Mark Sisson, used to recommend red wine as part of his Primal Health plan but now has changed his stance after abstaining from alcohol himself. Here’s some helpful info from the Primal Health coach course regarding some of the adverse effects of alcohol.
Alcohol’s Impact on the Body
As a source of “empty calories” (seven calories per gram) and a potential contributor to insulin resistance, alcohol has a negative effect on body composition goals. However, contrary to popular belief, alcohol does not convert into fat upon ingestion. Rather, alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and has an immediate effect on the brain and other tissues; hence the resulting “buzz.” Since alcohol is a toxin, the body works quickly to metabolize the alcohol through oxidation. This detoxifies and removes the alcohol from the bloodstream before it damages organs and tissues. In the liver, enzymes convert alcohol into acetaldehyde and then acetate. This is what happens to most of the alcohol consumed, but some alcohol escapes metabolic process and is excreted unchanged through the breath or urine.
As the “first to burn” calorie source, alcohol . . .
- Inhibits fat metabolism.
- Makes carbs more likely to be converted into fat.
- Can stimulate increases in appetite.
While alcohol is being burned or converted into acetate, the metabolism of other fuels is put on hold. That’s why alcohol calories are known as the “first to burn.” Not only is fat burning put on hold while the alcohol calories are burned through, but any carbohydrate calories consumed with alcohol are more likely to be converted into fat and stored instead of burned. Similarly, fat calories consumed with alcohol will more likely be stored as fat instead of burned (if they are consumed without insulin-stimulating carbohydrates).
Alcohol inhibits lipolysis (fat burning) and glycolysis (glucose burning) because it is the first to burn. Not surprisingly, studies correlate frequent consumption with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). In fact, according to Enoch Gordis, MD, Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the stupor commonly associated with drunks could often be more due to hypoglycemia than to the effects of alcohol. A pattern of frequent alcohol consumption can also result in decreased insulin sensitivity.
Not only that, alcohol gives you the munchies, triggering an area of the brain that controls hunger. And when you do eat, those calories are more likely to be stored as fat. Alcohol ingestion thus detracts from fat loss goals by contributing empty calories (that you will burn before tapping into stored body fat), interfering with other ingested calories (promoting the conversion of ingested carbs into fat), and increasing appetite. Along those lines, if alcohol is to be consumed, it is best consumed alone to mitigate fat storage concerns, and, of course, in a sensible and moderate manner.
Alcohol can also affect body composition by altering the healthy balance of sex hormones in both males and females. Alcohol is known to be directly toxic to the testes, lowering testosterone levels in males. Frequent consumption can disturb hormone functions in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, damage sperm, and compromise fertility in both sexes. In premenopausal females, frequent alcohol consumption can cause an assortment of reproductive problems, including abnormal menstrual cycles, delayed ovulation, and infertility. These negative effects are well associated with alcoholics, but reproductive issues can also occur in “social” drinkers.
Alcohol can also compromise athlete peak performance and recovery in varied ways. It can mess with your deep sleep cycles, and the critical hormonal processes (especially the release of Human Growth Hormone during deep sleep) that repair and rejuvenate your body for the next day. All-time triathlon great and current coach Mark Allen suggests that alcohol preoccupies the liver, hindering the liver’s crucial role in processing nutrients for performance and recovery (including interfering with testosterone production); interferes with water balance in cells, which hampers ATP production; and hinders your ability to perform in the heat.
In postmenopausal women, alcohol has been found to promote elevated levels of estradiol (estrogen), which commonly falls dramatically after menopause. The elevated blood estrogen levels from moderate alcohol consumption can deliver some health benefits by helping to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease without increasing the risk of bone loss, liver disease, or breast cancer. Due to the toxic effects of alcohol and its negative influence on the healthy metabolism of other calories, anything beyond occasional, casual drinking will have an adverse effect on healthy metabolic and hormonal function.
Take the Sober October Challenge
This challenge, like many of our challenges, is designed as an experiment to take you out of your comfort zone and help you gain a fresh perspective of your current health. The challenge comes from an idea I got from Joe Rogan. I have been told by a few respected clients and friends that this is the stupidest challenge ever and that October may not be the ideal month for such a challenge but there are no other months that rhyme with “sober.”
The challenge consists merely of abstaining from all alcohol for one month and is not an indictment of alcohol but an opportunity to experiment and learn about yourself. If you choose to take on our challenge, send us some feedback and let us know how it goes.