All the burning questions about alcohol: Can it help manage glucose levels? Or can glucose manage a hangover? What about the impact on my performance or recovery?
How you feel, how you look, how your brain and body perform: Glucose influences all of it. So here’s a question for those who like a cocktail or a beer: How does alcohol come into the mix?
We can look at a couple studies on the impact of alcohol on your glucose levels to find some answers. Here are the 3 things you need to know about alcohol and glucose:
- Different types of alcohol generally impact your glucose in similar ways, when controlling alcohol content and other non-alcohol factors like sugary mixers and other carbohydrate content.
- Your metabolic response to alcohol is largely determined by the timing of consumption and proximity to a meal.
- When paired with food that typically rushes your glucose, alcohol can reduce your glucose rush.
Studies have shown that drinking alcohol during a meal lowers post-meal glucose rushes by 16–37%, which represents a potential mechanism by which a bit of alcohol may reduce the health and performance consequences related to poor glucose control.
Hold up: Does that mean alcohol is good for you?
Well, over the long term, moderate alcohol use (even if mixed with some sugar, like with orange juice) reduces fasting glucose and insulin levels, which seems to be beneficial from a health and longevity perspective.
Additionally, drinking alcohol tends to impact your glucose response to food. Drinking alcohol with a meal can lower your glucose levels and typically reduce your glucose rush and get you back to a metabolically balanced state sooner.
In the short term though, we know that alcohol consumption inhibits gluconeogenesis, the process of the liver making new glucose (not to be confused with glycogenolysis, where the liver breaks down and releases glycogen). Consequently, that inhibition may impact certain metabolic adaptations some athletes are seeking.
While these facts are both interesting and somewhat reassuring, they can be of significant help when trying to understand how you can use your favorite drinks to improve your health and performance. That’s where experimentation with real-time glucose visibility comes into play.
Of course, we can share the general information with you. But visualizing it for yourself is the true unlock. Real-time glucose data is a click away at supersapiens.com. (From one athlete to the next: don't forget to consider the extra calories you will add to your overall intake when drinking alcohol, especially if mixed with sugar.)
How Does Glucose Respond To Alcohol By Itself?
When fasting for 12 hours (so that we avoid other confounding factors), alcohol seems to have a negligible effect on your glucose levels. However, with a prolonged fast (~3-4 days) there can be significant hypoglycemia (low glucose levels) when drinking alcohol, perhaps related to the aforementioned inhibitions of gluconeogenesis.
How Does Glucose Respond To Alcohol With A Meal?
While the necessary caveats are required around both potential risks of alcohol consumption and potential individual differences, there seems to be a fair consensus that alcohol decreases post-meal glucose response. This effect is in the range of 16 –37%. So, if you’re planning a high carb dinner, having a drink before the meal may reduce your glucose rush.
When to drink and how much to drink also depends on your individual body. In the study in question, beer, wine, and gin all reduced glycemia; beer the least, at a dose equivalent to 2 pre-dinner drinks (20g alcohol).
Does The Type of Alcohol Matter?
This is uncertain. It doesn’t look like the type of alcohol matters as much when things are equated in terms of the amount of alcohol consumed. Timing and amount seem to have a greater influence than the type of alcohol. So choose a beer or choose a whiskey, whatever your preference. Just consider the added carbohydrate content when opting for different types of drinks like beer or wine or cocktails.
Things To Remember:
Alcohol is not the same as alcoholic drinks. That is, you are generally not drinking pure alcohol. A mixed drink may well rush your glucose because of the sugar in the mixer. Likewise, there are some well publicized benefits of red wine that are not alcohol or glucose related but more related to longevity and cardiovascular health.
Another interesting study showed that a consistent dose (30g/day) of alcohol when consumed in the form of red wine or gin had differing impacts on glucose and insulin. The same study showed some beneficial impacts of de-alcoholized red wine, again, illustrating that there is more to alcohol than the ethanol (pure alcohol).
The Big Takeaway:
Generally, it seems that alcohol has a lowering effect on glucose if taken while eating, or shortly before (pre-dinner drink) the meal. Alcohol by itself is unlikely to have much impact on your glucose levels unless the drink has significant added sugar. This all probably comes as quite a relief for those who enjoy their beverage of choice with a meal. But here’s the catch to remember: Alcohol does many other things which are not at all related to glucose. As with everything, the dose makes the poison. Most research on alcohol and glucose pertains to low to moderate intake. If you want to test out your own theories, well… you know just the place for testing equipment. (Ahem, right here.)
What About Exercise?
Alcohol and sport seem to be somewhat inextricably linked in some sports and some parts of the world, in fact there is even suggestion that athletes engage in binge drinking more commonly than non-athletes. Of course, when you’ve finally reached that huge goal, it is fairly natural for you to want to celebrate—and many do indeed celebrate with alcohol.
And What Does This Do To Recovery?
It may not surprise some that alcohol impairs recovery. Of course, most would understand that this is multifactorial in nature given that alcohol can impact things like sleep, for example. That said, part of the reason alcohol impairs recovery is probably because the body preferentially metabolizes alcohol over other nutrition to excrete it as soon as possible.
Specifically, alcohol has been shown to impair muscle protein synthesis. This is a key part of recovery (and future performance) as this is the primary mechanism that the muscle fibers adapt by. Not to mention, muscle protein synthesis and glycogen replenishment go hand in hand during post-exercise refueling.
Additionally, to make matters worse, alcohol looks to exacerbate the potential damage from exercise in some situations.
The research surrounding muscle glycogen resynthesis is somewhat less certain. Though it looks as if alcohol only impairs muscle glycogen resynthesis if its consumption displaces carbohydrate consumption.
Alcohol pre-exercise (Yes, you read that right…. In the name of science, of course), in this case around 1 drink (12g), looks to change very little in terms of glucose and fat metabolism, though there does seem to be a rise in lactate.
The Big Takeaway:
If you are going to drink pre-exercise, it will probably make very little difference to your physiology, aside from having to metabolize the alcohol itself. Of course, it may impact safety and skill execution.
Alcohol might impair your recovery in the post-exercise window, so be careful if you decide to drink during your training blocks. We’re not suggesting you go out and start partying. But that said, a drink or two probably won’t harm you too much from a glucose perspective.
- Moderate alcohol consumption may have some positive health impacts, but also has the potential to negatively impact recovery.
- In terms of glucose, alcohol tends to limit steep glucose rushes when associated with food.
- Alcohol itself won’t rush glucose, but other parts of the drink may. For example, the carbohydrates in beer or sugar in a mixed drink can rush your glucose.
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