How Does Alcohol Consumption Cause Damage to the Body and Impair Athletic Performance?

Author: Sydney Yotter

It is common knowledge that heavy alcohol consumption has negative effects on the
human body and athletic performance, but how exactly does alcohol affect the body? Excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to decreased efficiency of the immune system, inhibition of reproductive properties, heart problems, damage to the digestive system, decreased brain functionality, problems with waste removal from the body, and decreased bone mineral density (Atkins 2019). While all of these complications can affect an individual’s daily life, one of the most studied consequences of alcohol consumption is lowered bone mineral density, which can lead to a degenerative disease known as osteoporosis. Osteoporosis can cause more frequent fractures, especially hip fractures, because of how thin and weak the bones can become. The bone mineral density in individuals with osteoporosis is much lower compared to the healthy bone mineral density of young adults (Chen et al. 2007). Risk for osteoporosis increases for postmenopausal women, due to the lack of the hormone estrogen in their bodies after menopause,
and with age. It makes sense that heavy alcohol consumption would have these damaging effects on our bones, but numerous studies also point towards moderate drinking as a risk factor for low bone mineral density. According to a systemic review and meta-analysis study, those who consume just 1-2 alcoholic drinks per day (14 g or 0.6 oz of pure alcohol) are 1.34 times more likely to be at risk for osteoporosis than those who consume zero alcoholic drinks per day (Cheraghi et al. 2019). Let’s take a closer look at how exactly alcohol works on the skeletal system.

Consumption of alcohol impacts the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals,
produce hormones, and build new bone. The vitamins and minerals important to bone strength and growth are calcium and vitamin D. The liver is the organ responsible for activating vitamin D, which in turn helps with calcium absorption (Davis). When alcohol disrupts the pancreas and stomach’s ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D, the body is unable to build bone effectively (Levey 2019). Just 2-3 ounces of alcohol daily can deter the stomach’s ability to absorb the calcium the body needs (Davis). In addition to vitamin and mineral absorption, important bone building hormones such as estrogen in women and testosterone in men aren’t as readily produced. In contrast, hormones that are damaging to bones, such as cortisol and parathyroid hormone, are increased by the intake of alcohol (Davis). So, if estrogen is being decreased by the consumption of alcohol, postmenopausal women who already have a decrease in estrogen are at even greater risk for osteoporosis if they drink alcohol daily. Furthermore, high alcohol consumption is damaging to osteoblasts, bone building cells (Levey 2019). If these bone building cells are damaged, the body has a tough time keeping bone strength and bone mineral density high. Finally, drinking can be
damaging to bones in a different way through the central nervous system. Since alcohol impairs the frontal lobes of the brain, making balance and coordination difficult, intoxication can a lead an individual to be more susceptible to falls and bone fractures. Research makes it apparent that bone health can be affected in numerous ways for the average person, but how does drinking affect the performance of athletes that enjoy relaxing or celebrating with drinking alcohol?

According to research, alcohol can be a part of an athlete’s diet as long as it is consumed in
moderation with a well-balanced diet, but when excessive alcohol use brings physiological
problems (Thomas et al. 2016). Muscle recovery is disturbed when alcohol is ingested during the recovery phase following exercise. In the recovery phase, there is normally an increase in protein synthesis which increases muscle size, but ingestion of alcohol during this time decreases the protein synthesis proportionally to the dosage of alcohol consumed (Vella and Smith 2010). Since protein synthesis is reduced, muscles aren’t able to grow as much compared to if zero alcohol was consumed during the recovery phase. Additionally, drinking during the recovery phase can impair recovery by slowing the replenishment of glycogen storage and through dehydration since alcohol is a diuretic and also acts to suppress antidiuretic hormone (Thomas et al. 2016). An athlete’s health is not only in danger when high amounts of alcohol are consumed, but also when consumed
even in moderation after a workout or a game, which can be detrimental to their performance.

Exactly how much alcohol is safe to consume to avoid these adverse effects on the body?
Since every individual is different and processes alcohol in different ways, it is tough to accurately predict how much alcohol is a safe amount to consume. What’s important to take away is that a balanced lifestyle will serve the average individual best, meaning moderate physical activity and a balanced diet. Research seems to point out that alcohol in moderate amounts will most likely not be harmful even to those who are already diagnosed with osteoporosis. To prevent degenerative diseases such as osteoporosis, an individual should incorporate weight-bearing exercises into their workout and eat foods rich in calcium (found in diary), vitamin D, magnesium, and potassium (found in fruits and vegetables) into their diet (Levey 2019). For athletes, it’s important that they don’t consume alcohol within a few hours of their training or performances in order to best facilitate a successful recovery period.

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