Alcohol & Exercise- Understanding The Negative Effects on Testosterone & Growth Hormone Production
If there is one area of little research but huge misconceptions in the fitness field it is that of the effects of alcohol and exercise. Alcohol consumption is quite common in our society today, and very tangible social pressures exist for individuals to drink. So much so that many avid gym goers indulge in a drink of two after their workouts from time to time with little thought given to any potential negative effects. Most are aware that alcoholic beverages are high in calories but ignore any possible ill effects given their activity level. The idea is that a good workout counteracts any possible negative outcomes from the consumption of alcoholic beverages and that there are actually some tangible health benefits to the occasional glass. Such thinking however, fails to take into consideration the very less than favorable hormonal consequences. Changes that include sharp and extended reductions in free testosterone levels that are actually made worse by training before drinking and reductions in growth hormone production as well. In this article we will take a hard look at how testosterone is affected by the combination of alcohol and exercise and the suppressive effects of alcohol on growth hormone- findings that may not be popular but ones that will help you make better and more informed decisions as to whether or not to drink.
Alcohol: Health Claims Vs Reality
Before I go any further I would like to preface this article by saying that for thousands of years alcohol has played an integral part in the social development of civilization as a whole. From religious ceremonies to special occasions and feasts, alcohol has been present in just about every human culture on the planet and it would be a mistake to vilify it completely. Consumed infrequently in moderate quantities there can indeed be a place for it- but it is important to understand the tradeoffs as opposed to blindly thinking that it might not put a monkey wrench in your goal of getting into the absolute best shape possible or performing a your highest level. Most of us are aware of the basic problems that alcohol presents from a fitness perspective, but clever marketing and somewhat questionable studies about its health benefits obscure the facts about what the general public should know in order to make better choices about their alcohol use. There has been an inordinate amount of media attention to the possible health benefits of red wine after a chemical found in the skin of grapes (called resveratrol) was found to be associated with a reduced incidence of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Possible health benefits that the wine and alcohol industries have used as a marketing public relations bonanza- as who hasn’t heard of the possible health benefits of drinking wine?
What isn’t as publicly trumpeted is the fact that these studies benefits apply only to animals in a laboratory environment and that no such findings have yet been confirmed in human beings. The relatively lower incidence of heart disease among the French when compared to their American counterparts in spite of their higher alcohol consumption (the so called French Paradox] has been also constantly broadcasted throughout every form of media possible as proof positive of the health benefits of regular wine consumption.  However, like the resveratrol studies, these findings are somewhat misleading as equal time is never given to further research that contradicts these health claims. For example, few are aware that the French Paradox is based on an assumption that wine is the cause of their lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. It’s a big assumption to be honest and one that ignores the fact that the French also on average consume more far seafood that we do over here in the United States with three servings of fish a week. [3,4,5] Long chain omega-3 fatty acids present in fish and seafood have been strongly associated with reduced incidence of heart disease and current studies attribute this along with the fact that compared to the average American the French:
- Eat smaller portions
- Consume more fresh fruit and vegetables
- Don’t snack between meals
- Have a diet relatively free of trans fats
- Don’t eat as much processed foods
And have a slower and calmer pace of life as the reason their comparative incidences of heart disease is lower than here in the United States.[3,4] Not as sexy a message as a drink a day will keep the doctor away, but one that has served to increase sales and consumption of wine from 568 million gallons in 2000 to 784 million gallons in 2010.[6,7] (Read my article on The Economics Of Obesity for more information on how the commercial industries manipulate studies to increase sales)
Alcohol & Calories- A Tip Of The Iceberg
Alcohol contains a total of 6.93 calories per gram but unlike just about every other food or drink that we consume, it isn’t digested, but is instead absorbed completely intact and processed directly by you liver. What happens next isn’t exactly the same for everybody as enzymes in your liver converts it to acetaldehyde. Sounds ominous? Well it should since acetaldehyde is a toxic chemical responsible for most of the liver and heart damage we see in those who drink heavily on a regular basis. Not a pretty substance at all, but how much of it remains in your body after drinking depends on how much you drink and some predetermined genetic factors. A healthy liver can usually tolerate small amount of alcohol and can convert the acetaldehyde to acetate- which our bodies can use as an energy substrate and or is harmlessly excreted as water and carbon dioxide. If, however you drink to the point where those incoming calories are in excess of what your body needs for the day, it will be stored as body fat. Drink too much alcohol at one time though and the liver is unable to do its job of metabolizing it from toxic acetaldehyde to relatively harmless acetate- causing an accumulation of this dangerous toxin and a possible deposition of fat in the liver itself. Both very precarious situations from a health perspective. The problem is that everyone reacts differently in terms of how they metabolize alcohol- which is one reason why people who drink heavily aren’t always necessarily obese, and why in some cases they can have even lower body weights than nondrinkers.
Effects Of Alcohol & Exercise On Lowering Testosterone Levels
It doesn’t make the news or help sell bottles but one of the seldom spoken attributes of alcohol is its role in depressing the body’s natural secretion of testosterone. With most of it being secreted in the testes (in males- ovaries in females), testosterone is the hormone predominantly responsible for increasing strength, muscle mass and decreasing overall body fat among other many other things. Reduced serum testosterone levels may have detrimental effects such as infertility, increased risk of osteoporosis, anemia, and immune dysfunction. and numerous studies confirm that alcohol is by nature a direct testicular toxin in both humans and animals.[12,13,14] Consumption of alcohol leads to a marked and prolonged reduction in testosterone that can last for several hours depending on the amount consumed. [11,15] A study of 13 moderate to infrequent male alcohol users reported a drop in serum testosterone of 19-22% that lasted for as long as 10 hours after slowly (over a 3 hour period) drinking 1.5 grams of alcohol per kilogram of body weight. As alarming as this drop in testosterone may seem, what was more shocking was that when the same amount of alcohol was consumed after a bout of strenuous exercise, the drop in testosterone lasted for as long as 22 hours after consumption. In fact, the experiment showed that in every scenario- whether it was exercising after drinking, exercising with a hangover or exercising while intoxicated, exercise demonstrated a significant effect in prolonging the depressant effect on testosterone when compared to non-exercising controls. Thus it is important to note that alcohol consumption after exercise could interfere with recovery after exercise- recovery that is important if you wish to get any benefits at all from your training. 
Effects Of Alcohol On Lowering Human Growth Hormone Production & Disturbing Sleep Patterns
Not only does acute alcohol use depress testosterone levels, but it also disturbs deep sleep patterns in healthy individuals, and in so doing affects another component critical to recovery after exercise- human growth hormone (HGH). In addition to increasing muscle mass and protein synthesis, HGH also promotes fat burning and stimulates the immune system. HGH is secreted by the pituitary gland with secretory peaks occurring during sleep,  however several studies have found that acute alcohol ingestion interferes with sleep cycles and reduces growth hormone production by as much as 70-75%.[18, 20,22] This alcohol related growth hormone suppression has been found to be dose related, so the more you drink the less growth hormone your body will produce. Alcohol’s ability to induce drowsiness often prompts many individuals who work out regularly to use it as a sleeping aid in times of high stress or acute insomnia. However while many report that alcohol does indeed induce sleep - the quality of that sleep isn’t always the same as it would be under normal circumstances. In an interesting twist, while alcohol does appear to help chronic insomniacs sleep better it has the very opposite effect on healthy individuals who use it sporadically. For reasons not quite fully understood, healthy individuals experienced marked sleep disruption during the second half of the night- disruptions that were not observed in those suffering with chronic sleeplessness.[19, 20]
The clinical implications of alcohol’s inhibitory effects on growth hormone are unclear, particularly with chronic and excessive alcohol use. Unfortunately, these findings, as important as they may be, have not been pursued much further. More studies are needed as well with regard to the suppressive effects of alcohol on testosterone with regards to its overall impact on exercise recovery. Women secrete as much as 20 times less testosterone daily than their male counterparts [16,17] and thus it is important to discern how much of an effect alcohol would have on them after training as no such research currently exists. One would imagine that the overall depressive effect might have a greater negative impact on their exercise recovery but we can’t know for sure. More research is also needed to determine the relationship between alcohol dosage and testosterone suppression but such research is hard to come by as funding for studies on drinking that will most likely reveal a negative outcome is hard to come by. It is a simple but seldom spoken economic reality that such studies do cost money- and it hard to sell research that isn’t necessarily profitable, much less experiments that might be detrimental to product sales. In the end it isn’t for me or anyone else to tell you whether you should drink or not after training, but it is important to have all the facts so you can make an informed decision as opposed to relying on clever marketing that always paints alcohol consumption in a positive light.
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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to CBS News, Kevin Richardson is an award winning personal trainer, natural bodybuilding champion, creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Personal Training and one of the most sought after personal trainers in New York City.
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