5 ways alcohol can affect your muscles and joints

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BSc in Health Studies, Dip.Nut
@EarleLogan2
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23 January 2020

What are the effects of alcohol on the body?

The risks associated with drinking a high quantity of alcohol is a topic that receives much attention. We are often told how it can increase the risk of various health problems, including heart and liver disease. However, alcohol can affect the function and health of the muscles and joints too. For example:

  • Alcohol is inflammatory
  • Alcohol makes it harder to build muscle
  • Alcohol can make the body ache
  • Alcohol hinders muscle recovery
  • Alcohol relaxes the muscles.

1. Alcohol is inflammatory

Although some research suggests that alcohol is anti-inflammatory, this is only when it is consumed in moderate amounts.1 Also, the study that found supposed anti-inflammatory effects in the body was observed in a narrow study group of post-menopausal women. Therefore, there may be more complex factors at play, such as other risks to health, which means the results may not apply to others.

On the whole, heavy alcohol consumption has an inflammatory effect on the body.2 This could make inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and gout more severe.

On top of this, some varieties of alcohol are high in sugar which is known to trigger the release of inflammatory markers called cytokines.3 Research by Action on Sugar recently found that a pre-mixed alcoholic drink (250ml) can contain as much as 8 teaspoons of sugar.4 Guidelines state, however, that adults should consume no more than 7 teaspoons (30g) of sugar in a whole day.

Unfortunately, pre-mixed alcoholic drinks aren't legally required to highlight how much sugar is in them so people may not be aware of how much they are drinking.

Top tip

Make sure you know how much sugar is in your chosen drink by checking the label beforehand. As a general rule, spirits, wine and beer contain the least sugar, whilst cocktails and mixers have the most.

2. Alcohol makes it harder to build muscle

Human growth hormone (HGH) is needed to help build and maintain both muscle and collagen. The latter is a connective tissue found in tendons and ligaments. As alcohol can disrupt the function of HGH, this may affect the ability to build muscle.

Human growth hormone is produced whilst we sleep and, as alcohol usually disrupts sleep patterns, the amount being produced may fall.

Alcohol can also increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol which has the effect of reducing HGH levels.

Top tip

It is really important to know alcohol guidelines. It is recommended that we consume no more than 14 units of alcohol in a week. To put this into perspective, there are just over 2 units of alcohol in a standard glass of wine or a pint of beer. This means that 6 glasses of wine or 6 pints of beer add up to your weekly allowance.

3. Alcohol can make the body ache

Alcohol can worsen existing joint pain and lead to body aches and cramps as a result of dehydration.

Alcohol acts as a diuretic, meaning it increases the amount of urine produced. This can contribute to dehydration because the body loses lots of fluid.

Also, when drinking alcohol, we are unlikely to take in sufficient water to keep us hydrated and counteract the diuretic effects of alcohol.

Top tip

If you're drinking alcohol, alternate drinks with a glass of water to keep you hydrated. As an added bonus, this can help to prevent a bad hangover the next morning!

4. Alcohol hinders muscle recovery

When you are exercising, a healthy immune system is required to aid performance and encourage muscle recovery. However, alcohol can put pressure on the immune system, especially when consumed in excess, so that it cannot function so effectively. This can, in turn, impair muscle recovery.

Research also shows that alcohol interferes with levels of myofibrillar protein synthesis (MPS). MPS helps the body respond to exercise so, if it becomes less effective as a result of alcohol consumption, muscle recovery and repair after a period of activity is hindered as well.5

There is also the issue that alcohol reduces our ability to follow an effective period of recovery after exercise. A period of rest after exercise is very important and, without it, various problems can arise including reduced muscle strength, reduced range of motion and swelling in the muscles.


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5. Alcohol relaxes the muscles

Have you ever drunk just a little too much and found that your muscles become more relaxed than normal? This is to do with the fact that alcohol slows the function of nerves which spread messages throughout the body. As a result, coordination, balance, reaction time and accuracy of movement can all be affected.

Top tip

How much alcohol can be consumed before it begins to have an affect will vary from person to person, depending on factors like height and weight.

Some people will also find it easier to clear alcohol from their system than others. Menopausal women and those with poor liver function, for example, can struggle, or take longer to process alcohol. So, when it comes to consuming alcohol know your limits and listen to your body.

For more information on alcohol and how it affects your body, take a look at Nutritionist Emma's blog 'Alcohol – good or bad? How's best to approach it?'.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26554758 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2842521/ 
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5986486/ 
4 http://www.actiononsugar.org/media/actiononsugar/Alcohol-DATA.pdf 

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088384 

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