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Here’s the thing about alcohol. It’s fun. It’s social. It’s a nightly wind-down habit for some. But it can be detrimental to your health, fitness and waistline. Alcohol is a known toxin to our bodies, yet most of us still choose to consume it regularly. For those of us who also pursue a natural high through exercise, evaluating our weekly (or daily) alcohol intake and its impact on our goals may be worthwhile.
So how much is too much, and how much is just right?
The answer to the second question is up to you. After some self-experimentation — cutting out all booze for two months, twice (I know, call me crazy.) — I got very clear about the consequences of using alcohol to manage my stress (Hint: It wasn’t working.) and its negative impact on my progress in the gym.
There were numerous benefits to “going dry” for two months. First, I experienced complete mental clarity. Second, I felt amazing the day after a wedding while all my hungover friends couldn’t get out of bed. Third, I slept more deeply. Fourth, I felt an overall sense of increased energy. Fifth, I saved money. Most satisfying of all, however, was the realization that I didn’t need alcohol to manage my stress, wind down or have a good time.
The issue with alcohol is overuse and abuse. When we consume too much, and I’m not even talking about binge drinking here, more realistically a glass of wine or two per night (which is by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), we start to see the negative health effects. Drinking alcohol in excess can give you more than just a killer hangover and wreck your healthy eating or workout plans the following day.
When You Drink…
Cravings for fatty, fried and starchy foods skyrocket.
It wasn’t just the booze that packed on the freshman 15 in college (or grad school). It was all those late-night pizza runs and greasy brunches the next morning. Sure, one night of having a few drinks alone might not be so bad for your waistline, but all the food consumed on those nights and the following days make a big difference over time.
The body gets robbed of essential nutrients and dehydrated.
Drinking too much not only can strip the body of essential nutrients used to process the alcohol (especially B vitamins, which you need for energy) but also your skin. The body’s largest organ gets severely dehydrated every time you drink — which can age your skin faster (yikes). This dehydration also can impair your workouts for days to come because you need adequate hydration to maintain good blood flow and circulate enough oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. Exercising soon after drinking also can make this dehydration worse.
Sleep is disrupted.
Many people think alcohol helps them sleep, but it actually leads to a disrupted and non-restorative night’s rest. You may fall asleep quicker, but you will spend less overall time in deep-sleep cycles and more time in REM sleep, which is less restful.
Blood sugar goes haywire.
When we drink, the body reacts to it as a toxin and uses all its resources to process and expel the alcohol as fast as possible. Other bodily processes, like digestion and the regulation of digestive hormones like insulin, are interrupted. Combined with the intake of sugar in the alcohol and foods you’re eating before or after consuming alcohol, this can actually lead to increased insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, the precursor to Type 2 diabetes.
Further, when your body breaks down alcohol, the liver doesn’t produce as much glucose — meaning you could have higher insulin resistance and lower blood sugar all at the same time — which can hugely impact your exercise performance because glucose is the preferred fuel of the body for exercise.
The stomach produces more acid.
This can lead to reflux, heartburn and, in more severe cases, gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). This inflammatory process is actually made worse by taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to deal with a headache the next morning because they block the production of protective prostaglandins in the stomach, which can then lead to stomach ulcers when combined with alcohol and consistent use.
Blood pressure (and increased risk of hypertension) rises.
Long-term use of alcohol has been shown to lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, for both men and women.
Now imagine what happens to your body when you’re doing all of the above on a consistent basis — even one glass of wine a night.
I’m not here to tell you to give up booze forever — or at all! The key is to be aware, find a happy medium and enjoy your wine or drink of choice every once in a while.
When you do choose to drink, keep these options in mind to keep the negative health effects down:
- Choose clear spirits, as opposed to dark ones. Think vodka, silver tequila and clean rum such as Batiste.
- Choose dry red or white wines, which have a lower sugar content, like FitVine wines.
- Avoid drinks high in sugar (think frozen daiquiris, margaritas and most ciders).
- Avoid drinks with artificial sugars (diet soda and vodka, for example).
- Avoid bottom-shelf or rail drinks. Pretty much self-explanatory, right?
When we’re talking wine, it’s important to choose vintages without added sugars or preservatives. The same way companies will shortchange you by adding cheap, fake ingredients to processed food so they can produce and sell them for cheaper, a similar process happens with bottom-shelf wines — which also can contribute to hangovers. The sugar content is also extremely important when choosing wines for health reasons.
We want to choose wines with a lower sugar content because a higher sugar content equals a worse hangover.
Take the advice of Beachbody super-trainer Jericho McMatthews:
“My motto is simple. It’s all about balance. I don’t count calories or stick to a strict diet or nutrition plan because I know how to fuel my body to feel my best and stay on my A game without feeling deprived or cutting out my favorites! It’s all about choices. If I’m out with friends enjoying a glass of wine or a cocktail, I stick to clean alcohols and low sugar wine, if possible. FitVine wine is one of my favorites because the taste is amazing without all the extra sugar and calories. Not to mention, sugary alcohol hangovers are the worst and so not worth it — especially if you have an energetic toddler to chase around!”
So when it comes to booze, pick your poison. There is a way to enjoy alcohol healthfully while still working toward your health and fitness goals, but the balance is up to you.