Fermented grain, fruit juice and honey have been used to make alcohol for thousands of years and it spans nationalities and demographics due to the fact that it serves to relax and provide a source of enjoyment. It has even been shown to have some salutary effects, such as a blood thinning action beneficial to the cardiovascular system, in addition to the aforementioned social and relaxation aspects. However, the doses required in these instances are very minimal, (1-2 glasses in most cases), and anything beyond this more than outweighs any potential benefits. This is partly because alcohol is classed as a central nervous system depressant, causing the brain to relax and inhibitions to decrease.
Irrational thought, emotional status, judgment, speech and muscle coordination are adversely affected through alcohol consumption and. in extreme cases, it can cause coma and death. Alcohol is specifically detrimental to bodybuilders or any athlete, as it interferes with recovery, protein synthesis, hydration, motivation and nutrient intake. Its financial cost is also a burden for most anyone who buys it.
Alcohol is poisonous to every organ in the body and will adversely affect everyone who engages in it's use to some extent. However, this article is not intended to dissuade people from using alcohol in moderation for recreational purposes, but rather will point out it's significant shortcomings.
Ethyl alcohol is a very small molecule which is soluble in lipid and water solutions. It is metabolised primarily by the liver, where an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase breaks the alcohol down into acetaldehyde, which is further broken down into acetate. Acetate is metabolised into carbon dioxide and water, which is then excreted. Alcohol is absorbed rapidly from the small intestine, (80%), and stomach, (20%), before any other nutrients are digested. These properties ensure that alcohol gets into the blood stream and crosses the blood-brain barrier easily and quickly. Hence alcohol's instantaneous effect on thought processes. In fact, alcohol has a number of detrimental effects on the brain, two of which, central to the scope of this article, will be discussed first.
Alcohol, once it has crossed the blood-brain barrier, will inebriate the cerebral cortex, (the part of the brain responsible for executive functions such as rational thought), and work its way down to the limbic system. It won't however affect the limbic system. This turns out to be a problem because the limbic system, being the most primitive part of the brain, then takes over the role of rational thought.
This is problematic because the limbic system is entirely emotional, and one then begins to think with their emotions rather than the rational area of their brain, (the cerebral cortex). A surprisingly small amount of alcohol will have an instant effect on ones ability to control their emotions, and their judgment as a result. A comparatively large amount of alcohol and one might become violent or completely out of control in other respects.
As mentioned, alcohol is also a depressant. It depressant effect results from increased transmission of the GABA systems. In other words, alcohol consumption creates a demand for more GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter responsible for restricting or depressing the excitability of our brain. Glutamate is the neurotransmitter that has the opposite effect as it is responsible for brain excitability and can be increased through the intake of various stimulants. It now gets a bit complex.
The post synaptic receptors, (the receptors of one brain cell that receive a message from another brain cell), for GABA, GABA-A, then become stimulated and respond by hyperpolarising the cell membrane and reducing the chance of an action potential occurring. An action potential is an electrical charge propagated through a neuron which causes that neuron to become stimulated. It gets worse.
Over time, if a sufficient amount of alcohol is consumed, the GABA receptors become accustomed to a certain amount of alcohol and more is required to get the same depressing and intoxicating effect. In short, tolerance occurs. With more and more alcohol the potential for the GABA receptor to function improperly increases. This may result in hyperexcitability causing, anxiety, tremors, disorientation, and hallucinations when one is not drinking. This is alcohol at its destructive extreme.
In addition to alcohols destructive effects at the time of ingestion, it can also cause neural tissue death when its consumption is stopped. As explained, GABA, (a inhibitory neurotransmitter), binds to its GABA-A receptor following alcohol intake. When this happens, a chloride channel is opened and extracellular chloride moves into a intracellular compartment on the receptor. The neuron is hyperpolarized as a result and excitatory postsynaptic potentials, (EPSPs), cannot occur, as mentioned. The main point here is that alcohol facilitates the ability of GABA to open chloride channels. With greater, (chronic), use of alcohol the neuron may become entirely dependant on alcohol for its GABA function in the long term. However, at the time of chlorides uptake another process, this time involving the glutamine, (excitatory neurotransmitter), receptors, causes further problems.
The glutamate system is up-regulated with alcohol withdrawal and calcium-channel activity is stimulated. Calcium is released directly onto the post synaptic neuron, (calcium influx), in large amounts and neural death occurs. This happens particularly after binge sessions that occur on a regular basis.
Implications For Athletes
Alcohol is particularly detrimental for athletes as it interferes with many of the processes so vital to success. Focus, performance, recovery and rebuilding are all affected. Given that alcohol's effects can linger on for days an athlete would be wise to refrain from its use when competing. Although alcohol is absorbed rapidly it is metabolised very slowly and its effects may still impact athletic performance up to 48 hours after the last drink.
Assuming the athlete is performing within 48 hours of its consumption, as little as two to three standard drinks can directly:
The effects outlined here are just some of the more obvious ones. There are many others, and it would probably take a book to outline and explain them in sufficient detail.
Even though alcohol will greatly impact performance 25 to 48 hours after the last drink, it has longer lasting, more indirect effects. The reduction in quality of training and sleep in the period after its consumption, may cause a reduction in performance over the days following this period. So it is probably best to stay away from alcohol completely when training and competing to win. Indeed, the only real way to avoid alcohol's effects is to refrain from its use completely.