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Alcohol and You

Alcohol and You

Oct 2013

By Glenn Macnamara and Deon Braun

Picture the scene: There's laughter aplenty and a great vibe at running clubs around the country after the weekly time trial. Runners congregate and drink a beer or wine while swopping war stories. It's a perfect way to be social and it's socially acceptable, especially since runners feel they've earned that drink through burning off the calories. 

But is it healthy? I have long maintained my rules that a key component for fitness and health is recovery. The better quality our recovery, the better we perform at our major training and health goals.

The post-exercise window is a particularly important period for the body as it has an enhanced ability to absorb carbohydrates, vitamins, antioxidants and protein. That means it can absorb them at a quicker rate than in resting times. If you want to improve your fitness, it's vital to take advantage of that glycaemic window (a highly descriptive term as it really is a window of opportunity that doesn't hang around for too long). If we miss it, it's like a bus or train schedule that doesn't cater for latecomers.

The Truth About Alcohol: Not the fun character you thought it was

• Alcohol is a diuretic. It assists only in further dehydrating your body. Drinking beer or any form of alcohol after exercise is not hydrating you.

• Alcohol does not allow fat to be burned. A few sips of an alcoholic drink reduce your body’s ability to burn by fat by a third. I am told this by my friend Dr Stacey Bell, a leading doctor in the USA and author of the book Nutritional Healing. So those hoping to burn calories are doing themselves no favours drinking alcohol. Drinking one can of beer takes your liver approximately one hour to metabolise and in this time, the body does not burn any fat at all. Multiply that by four and you have a perfect scenario for putting on weight where you least want it. Spare tyre anyone? Alcohol does this when it stunts the production of a hormone called leptin. Eugene Daamen, a leading South African personal trainer and nutrition expert, observes that leptin is a vital component in the metabolism of fat.  

• Booze has a strong impact on particularly the liver, as it takes precedence over anything else in the system. That means that any other food or liquid currently in the system tends to be metabolised only after the alcohol is processed. By that time, the food is usually stored as fat too. 

Dr Bell verifies this: "The liver metabolises alcohol in a similar way to fat rather than carbohydrates,” she says. Essentially, this means the liver will tend to store the alcohol as a fat rather than use it as a source of energy. If you consider that alcohol delivers seven calories for every gram of alcohol, this means a lot of calories the body is not using for glycogen (the body’s ability to convert food into usable energy). So much for thinking that having food with your alcohol makes you feel better! 

• Dietitian Kerryn Moolenschot, a keen mountain biker and trail runner in the KZN Midlands, says that drinking alcohol can cause reduced glucose secretion by the liver which can lead to hypoglycaemia and early fatigue during endurance exercises such as trail running. Do you really want some of that?

• It increases your risk of cancer. Celebrated US doctor and dietitian and former marathoner Gabe Mirkin says "Drinking even small amounts of alcohol regularly increases risk for cancers of the mouth, larynx, esophagus, colon, rectum, liver, and breast, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health (published 14 Feb 2013). Doctors usually tell their patients that it is safe for men to take up to two drinks a day, and for women to take one drink a day. This study shows that drinking any amount of alcohol regularly increases cancer risk. The authors found that alcohol causes 3.5 percent of all cancers in the United States." 

• Alcohol damages your cells. "It hurts to pour alcohol on a cut because alcohol pulls the water right out of cells, damages them and makes them shrivel up. If you add a litre of water to a litre of alcohol, you will get a volume far less than two litres," says Dr Mirkin. Alcohol takes water right into its own molecule so the combination takes up less space than when alcohol and water are in separate glasses.

• Only your liver protects you from alcohol, says Dr Mirkin. It contains an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase that breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde that is even more toxic than alcohol. It is the chemical that causes hangovers and is a toxic chemical found in cigarettes. It is linked as a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance by disrupting cellular metabolism. Your liver uses a second enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase (say that fast after your third glass) to break down acetaldehyde to harmless substances, but the damage has been done. 

• A second toxin produced is malondialdehyde, a potent free radical that causes excessive oxidative damage to your body.

So what's the solution?

If you feel you need to have a drink with your mates after runs, ensure you drink water too as this will limit the dehydration. To minimise the impact of alcohol on your system over the long term, ensure you eat sufficient fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. The dark green options are especially useful. Think broccoli, chard and kale. Raw is top of the pops. Use a food processor to blend it into a green mix with some avocado and eat as a spread or a green pudding.


Source: This article appeared in TRAIL magazine Issue 6, March/April/May 2013

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