Alcohol effects are deleterious on many different parts of the body. One of those is the muscles. These effects are especially pronounced if you drink excessively.
Moderate drinking is not harmful to the muscles. This is defined as taking not more than these amounts of drinks per day:
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
- 5 ounces (or one shot) of hard liquor (40% alcohol)
Drinking any more than that will have noticeable effects on the muscles, such as muscle pain, slower healing of muscle damage, and poor physical performance.
Here are the harmful alcohol effects on the muscles in more detail.
Immediate effects of alcohol on the muscles
After a night of heavy drinking, you may notice a range of muscular issues, such as:
- Pain or cramps
- Low endurance
- Poor physical performance
- Slow recovery
Many studies have shown similar negative effects, but there is no clear explanation yet of how alcohol damages muscles in humans. Most studies have been done either in mice or in cultured muscle cells only.
At present, researchers and doctors think that the following mechanisms cause muscle impairment.
Disrupting calcium absorption
Calcium ions are important for muscle function as they allow muscles to contract. Proper muscle function relies on a steady flow of calcium ions into muscle cells. Alcohol disrupts this flow; in turn, muscles cannot contract properly. As a consequence, you will feel muscle weakness after drinking.
Accumulation of lactic acid
When you use your muscles during strenuous activity, like a workout session, your muscles release lactic acid. This is a byproduct of the processes muscle cells use to produce energy. If lactic acid stays long in the muscles, you would feel muscle pain.
Normally, the liver clears out excess lactic acid from the body. With that, you would only feel muscle pain for a short time. But when you have been drinking heavily, the liver would be too busy detoxifying alcohol from the blood. In turn, lactic acid will stay longer in the muscles, contributing to longer episodes of muscle pain. Excess lactic acid may also cause muscle cramps.
Increased levels of cortisol
Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, which are right on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is a stress hormone, and high levels of it in the body contribute to muscle atrophy. In other words, the hormone plays a role in breaking down proteins in the muscles.
Alcohol can increase the levels of cortisol in your body, leading to muscle breakdown. Thus, you would lose muscle mass even as you’re working out to build them.
Alcohol effects on exercise and weight loss
When you’re exercising or hitting the gym regularly, the goal is often to either lose weight, build muscle mass, or both. Working out, along with a balanced diet, is a great way to build muscle mass, burn excess fat, and become fit. But when combined with alcohol, you may not achieve your workout goals.
As mentioned above, alcohol contributes to the breakdown of muscles. Thus, even if you exercise regularly and eat a protein-rich diet, the muscle-building effects will just be cancelled out by alcohol, especially if you drink heavily.
You will also have a much lower level of endurance during exercise sessions. Suppose that you can normally go for an hour at the gym before feeling fatigued. With alcohol, you may just last 30 minutes or less before feeling tired. Your muscles will feel sore much sooner, even if you haven’t done your most intense routines yet.
Alcohol has empty calories
Additionally, alcohol is known to contain empty calories. That means alcohol can contribute to weight gain, as it provides no other nutrients to the body. That is why it’s a terrible idea to drink alcohol while trying to lose weight.
Sometimes, you would mix alcohol with sugary drinks to make it taste better. However, this only makes it worse. Empty calories and added sugar both contribute to weight gain. Also, if you drink a sugary beverage after you exercise, this will stop the body from burning fats. Thus, there would be no change in your body weight. Combined with the detrimental effects of alcohol on your muscles, your fitness goals would be completely ruined.
Alcohol disrupts sleep
When you drink alcohol regularly, your normal sleep patterns will be disturbed. In turn, this would interfere with the functions of the hormones necessary for muscle growth. This is another reason your muscles cannot grow bigger when you drink alcohol.
Alcohol dehydrates you
Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you urinate more often. This leads to dehydration. Exercise can also dehydrate you, so if you exercise then drink alcohol, you get even more dehydrated. This will severely affect your physical performance. With it comes symptoms like:
- Dry mouth
- Feeling dizzy
- Faster heartbeat
Alcohol affects the liver
The liver contains glycogen, which is a kind of sugar that serves as an energy reserve. When your muscles need extra energy, the liver breaks down glycogen into glucose, providing that needed energy to the muscles.
When there is a lot of alcohol in your body, your liver becomes too busy filtering it out. Thus, it can no longer break down glycogen to provide extra energy to the muscles when needed.
Consequently, your endurance will suffer and you will feel tired sooner.
Alcohol slows down muscle repair
Alcohol causes blood vessels to expand, which increases blood flow to the muscles. If your muscles get injured due to strenuous exercise, they cannot heal as fast as they should. The swollen blood vessels increase bleeding from those injuries, so the body will take longer to repair them.
Avoiding muscle problems due to alcohol
The most effective way to prevent muscle injuries is to stop drinking alcohol. If your muscle problems are caused by one night of heavy drinking, they should go away after a few days. But if you drink regularly or suffer from alcohol use disorder, muscle damage can take up to months to heal.