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How alcohol can affect your health and muscles.

By Dennis R. Sparkman, Ph.D.

Too much testosterone? Hit the bottle and you'll counteract much of that muscle-building male hormone. The question, obviously, is rhetorical. Of course you don't have too much testosterone; you're a bodybuilder. We just phrased our opening that way to emphasize the incompatibility of bodybuilding and booze.

"Wait a minute," you may say. "What about all those news stories on the health effects of wine?" Rarely do you read a story about the bodybuilding benefits of drinking alcohol, because there aren't any in terms of our bottom line -- bigger muscles and a harder, more defined physique.

But in terms of another bottom line, longevity, moderate alcohol use does seem to have certain benefits. The factor that's so often overlooked when quoting this fact is the amount of alcohol that might be associated with longer life. For a man, many researchers say it's one or two drinks a day; for a woman, one drink per day. But for a bodybuilder, the deleterious effects of even that much alcohol on a daily basis might outweigh the potential benefit. Another key factor is the type of person who benefits from this light drinking. Most bodybuilders don't seem to fit the profile.

Take Your Best Shot

Although drinking might make you feel better about life, alcohol is a depressant drug. You may think you can take on the world, but alcohol in fact reduces your ability to perform athletic events. It messes with your body and your mind in a number of ways.

First, it can interfere with carbohydrate loading of your muscles, preventing them from getting the fuel they need to contract.

Second, alcohol has been shown to depress the left ventricle of your heart, which pumps blood into your body. When this part of the heart is depressed, two things happen: Your heart has to pump harder to get blood to your cells, and your cells and tissues don't get the supply needed for optimal functioning. If you also consider that strength training increases the thickness of the left ventricle, it only makes sense that anything that interrupts optimal functioning of this structure won't help you in the gym.

Third, alcohol's empty calories are detrimental to your physique -- they can be converted to fat that will obscure your muscularity. How fattening can a couple of drinks be? Consider these calorie counts: two beers, 292; two jiggers whiskey, 248; 7 ounces red wine, 148; two piña coladas, 1,052; two daiquiris, 518.

Fourth, it can decrease a man's testosterone levels, leaving you soft and flabby.

Bottoms Up?

Still, when consumed in small amounts on a daily basis, alcohol seems to be good for some people, though not necessarily for already-health-conscious bodybuilders. To date, studies have been done only with samples of the general population, not with extremely fit and healthy people, so making broad-based generalizations is difficult.

Thus far, the only alcoholic beverage that has been shown to have any health benefit is red wine. Consider this: Although the French eat lots of fatty, high-cholesterol foods, they have a low incidence of cardiovascular disease. This so-called "French Paradox" between the French and the rest of the Western world can't be explained by typical heart-disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, high bodyweight and cigarette smoking. Initially, this puzzle was thought to be explained by the fact that the French drink a lot of red wine, which may have cardioprotective properties. What we're learning now is that any type of alcohol may be beneficial in several ways.

Protecting Your Heart With Alcohol?

The announcement that the consumption of red wine may contribute to the French people's heart health caused millions of Americans, and perhaps a few bodybuilders, to start drinking a glass of red wine each day to help prevent cardiovascular disease. Still, the connection remained a mystery. That's why researchers began to re-examine the drinking habits of the French, and that's when a different picture began to emerge.

In the regions of France that were studied, most of the population drank predominately red wine, usually with their meals every day of the week. This made it hard to distinguish the effects of other alcoholic beverages on heart disease, since the French drank little beer or spirits. In most Western countries, such as the United States, alcohol is consumed mostly on weekends, often in large amounts after hours. This unhealthy bingeing is vastly different from the Mediterranean tradition of drinking wine as part of a meal. That's why only the consumption of red wine appears to be linked to a decrease in cardiovascular disease.

Now health sleuths are trying to determine if any difference exists between the types of alcoholic beverages consumed and their effects on heart disease. During the past few years, several major studies on specific types of drinks and cardiovascular disease have resulted in a three-way tie: four studies found an association with wine, four with beer and four with spirits. Although no overall conclusion could be reached about what type of drink was the most cardioprotective, moderate alcohol consumption (which many would call light alcohol consumption) was shown to be consistently associated with decreased mortality from heart disease.

A Toast To Living Longer

So, what we get from these studies is the idea that if you have 1-2 alcoholic drinks a day, you may live longer than either teetotalers or those who drink heavily. And guess what? This alcohol-associated increase in life expectancy wasn't affected by gender, age, body mass or smoking. Each test subject benefited from a drink a day, although moderate drinkers who were thin and didn't smoke outlived those who were heavier and smoked.

The mechanisms by which alcohol exerts its cardioprotective effects aren't well understood. To try to understand this relationship, researchers studied the amount of alcohol consumed daily by a large group of people and their high-density-lipoprotein (HDL) blood concentrations. HDL, the "good" cholesterol, moves into the liver to be broken down and excreted from the body; people with higher levels of HDL are less likely to suffer from heart disease. Test results showed that 1-3 drinks per day can raise total HDL, especially HDL2 and HDL3, which are strongly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. When these HDL levels increased in the moderate drinkers, their risk of death due to heart attack decreased significantly.

Another recent investigation examined the relationship of alcohol consumption, heart disease and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad" cholesterol. LDL moves into cells, such as the fibroblasts in the walls of the arteries, where it forms the plaque and fatty deposits that clog arteries. The higher the ratio of LDL to HDL, the greater the risk of heart attack.

Scientists found that the relationship between daily alcohol consumption and heart disease depends on the person's initial serum LDL concentration. People with normal to low levels of LDL don't seem to show any benefit from having a drink a day since they're already at low risk for cardiovascular disease. We could expect bodybuilders to fit into that category due to their low-fat diets and strenuous exercise regimens.

Those with high LDL levels who consumed a moderate amount of alcohol daily, however, did benefit -- their risk for heart disease was cut by more than half.

This effect on people with high LDL levels may be due to alcohol's ability to raise HDL and alter the LDL/HDL ratio. If alcohol can raise HDL, this should naturally help to decrease the harmful effects of LDL.

Even More Benefits

If you live the bodybuilding lifestyle, you're probably interested in preventing heart disease. But does a drink a day have enough health benefits to outweigh any potential harm associated with drinking? Many health problems are linked to alcohol consumption; bottles of liquor must now carry a government warning. Drinking carries risks, yet may still be beneficial when used in moderation.

Have you ever noticed how people who smoke and drink have a higher incidence of colds and flu than those who don't? Researchers thought that both smoking and drinking suppressed the immune system, especially since alcoholics have more bacterial infections. To see which posed the greatest risk, four groups of people who either smoked, drank, did both or neither were intentionally exposed to one of five cold viruses.

As expected, the susceptibility to infection and the onset of a cold was increased in smokers. This is most likely due to the fact that particles from tobacco smoke can block the efficiency of the alveolar macrophages, making the lungs more susceptible to infection by microorganisms. Surprisingly, the drinkers who didn't smoke were less susceptible to colds than the teetotalers. In smokers who also drink, the alcohol seems to offer no protective effect from viral infections.

Another study found that moderate daily consumption of alcohol could increase bone mineral density in both men and women. How alcohol affects bone density is unclear, but it could affect the release of hormones that are responsible for mineralization of bone. Regardless, strong bones are necessary for lifting heavy poundages: The amount of weight that a muscle can lift is always limited by the strength of the bones that support the body.

Lastly, the grapes used to make red wine as well as red grape juice contain natural antioxidants. One group of powerful antioxidants and free-radical scavengers are polyphenolic compounds called procyanidins. The skins of grapes also contain phytoalexins, which are natural antifungal agents. When LDL is oxidized by free radicals, it can become sticky and start to clog arteries. Polyphenols found in red wine can inhibit the oxidation of LDL, preventing it from forming deposits in the walls of the cardiovascular system.

Yet the main candidate in grapes for promoting good health is resveratrol. This ingredient was used in Oriental folk medicine, with apparently good results, to treat atherosclerosis and other diseases. In the laboratory, resveratrol has been shown to raise the good HDL and lower platelet aggregability, which may explain its cardioprotective effects.

Perhaps the most recent and exciting potential of resveratrol are anticancer properties. One theory is that free radicals formed because of the presence of chemicals and pollution in the environment may damage the DNA of cells and result in malignant transformations. Resveratrol's antioxidant properties could prevent the formation of free radicals and protect cells from environmental damage. Recent studies either added resveratrol to cultures of cancer cells or fed it to animals. Data analysis revealed that resveratrol can, in fact, keep cells from turning cancerous and prevent the spread of metastatic cancer cells.

Intense exercise is known to produce free radicals and tissue damage, and resveratrol may be able to limit the damage to protect the body or even help shorten your recovery time between workouts.

An Ounce Of Prevention

No one is suggesting that you take up drinking as part of your health program or incorporate it into your bodybuilding lifestyle. (You can improve your cholesterol ratio and battle free radicals with a nutritious diet.) But if you do like an occasional drink, you can rest assured that one a day won't hurt and may actually do some good. Just remember that when it comes to drinking alcohol, you should take it as prudently as medicine. A little is good, but more isn't necessarily better. You shouldn't have more than one glass of wine, one bottle of beer or 1 1/2 ounces of liquor per day. That's enough to provide health benefits without the risks associated with heavy drinking.

Many people, of course, shouldn't drink at all. This includes pregnant women, people on certain medications or with certain medical or psychological conditions, and alcoholics (and most experts say this includes recovering alcoholics). Check with your doctor if you have concerns.

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Although we've identified the positive effects moderate amounts of alcohol -- specifically red wine -- can have, physical impairment is a well-known effect of overconsumption. A review of recent research sheds more light on why you should avoid drinking excessively.

* Alcohol depletes liver glycogen, reduces bodyweight and lowers testicular and hepatic levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in rats. We all know that diminished glycogen and ATP production compromise your workouts.

* If you knock back a few beers after your workout, you can count on depressed testosterone secretion. In terms of getting big and strong, can you think of anything worse?

* Ladies, forget that sleek, slender, muscular and sexy look you get from pumping iron if you're going to drink alcohol on a daily basis. You can instead expect increased testosterone levels (not exactly a "feminine" thing) and more fat in your abdominal area.

* As if it couldn't get any worse, between one- and two-thirds of all alcohol abusers have been found to lose up to 20% of their entire musculature due to alcohol. Called alcoholic myopathy, this basically causes atrophy of Type II muscle fibers -- the ones you need more than anything else because they move the weight you lift and grow the most. This condition has also been linked to defective rates of muscle protein synthesis, whole-body protein metabolism and reduced IGF-1.

If you still aren't convinced of the ill effects too much alcohol has on your ability to grow, have a few beers and see how much you can bench.

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