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KGB Vol 21: Alcohol intake and stress management

Let’s just start by clearing the air. No this is not a rant on anti-alcohol or removing alcohol from your life entirely. The message is rooted in simple advice, pick your spot! Let’s state some truths about the impact of alcohol consumption and make an educated decision in terms of when, how much, and impact mitigation strategies.

Plain and simple, alcohol is a toxin and causes damage to your body. There are several factors that contribute to the amount of damage and to be quite honest, some of them are simply genetic. There are still several other factors worth discussing.

  • What is the definition of chronic alcohol consumption?

The word “chronic” can elicit some negative response. In the context of this conversation 7-14 drinks per week, in any combination, is considered chronic alcohol consumption. What does this mean? It could be a drink or two each night with dinner, a weekend where all drinks are consumed on Friday and Saturday, or any combination in between. While it may not seem like a lot to some people the impact of this level of intake is noticeable when it comes to impact on the body.

  • What is the impact of this type of drinking?

One of the main impacts of alcohol is on the brain. Alcohol messes with the natural cycle of mood related hormones (serotonin, cortisol, etc). These impacts are present while actively consuming alcohol, and these negative impacts are present during the times when alcohol is not being consumed. This prolonged disruption in mood hormones leads to changes in overall mood and feelings of wellbeing. In more blunt terms there are increases in stress and anxiety. As coaches, changes in mood and increasing stress have an impact on overall decision making, communication skills, and future planning. As players these chronic mood changes decrease recovery through sleep disruption, increase risk of illness and injury, and can impact decision making both on and off the ice.

  • What is happening in these “chronic” environments that leads to such significant changes in health status.

The first and maybe most impactful change is the health of the gut or digestive tract. Alcohol will eliminate healthy bacteria from the gut leading to poor nutrient absorption. Think of all the commercial cleaners that use some form of alcohol to disinfect or kill bacteria. An onslaught of healthy bacterial death can lead to an increase in the uptake in low quality or poorly digested nutrients. This disruption in the gut has a negative impact on the liver and brain. As the alcohol is metabolized in the liver, it signals the body to release pro inflammatory chemicals throughout the entire system. This increase in systemic inflammation leads to an increase in stress hormones from the brain. Once the stress response is triggered in the brain, unfortunately, it triggers a desire to drink more to in attempt to deal with the negative emotional state. It is a very unhealthy cycle and explains the tendency for people to develop an alcohol use disorder.

  • What are some risk factors for developing alcohol use disorder?

If you find yourself landing in the “chronic” zone, don’t worry, all is not lost. The body is very resilient and can usually repair the damage on the gut, liver, and brain. If you are above this chronic state and have nights where you may not remember certain events aka “blackout”, you may want to consider an extended break (6 months or longer). If you started drinking at a very young age (let’s say under 16 in this example), in addition to drinking at or above the chronic consumption rate, and have had nights where you blackout, you may want to consider reaching out to a health professional to assess your risk for developing alcohol dependence.

  • High performance impacts:

As athletes we may assume we are immune to these effects. The one thing that should drive decision making around alcohol use it is the fact that your sleep is significantly disrupted when you drink any amount of alcohol. The quality of sleep even after one drink is noticeably disrupted. Alcohol is nondiscriminatory and will attack all phases of sleep from REM, slow wave sleep, and most importantly deep wave sleep. In some cases of high consumption, it is not even really sleep at all and is more of a low-level trance state where we wake up several times unnoticed. A loss of sleep like this leads to significant changes in the body’s ability to recover from physical stress. Stack that up a couple nights a week or more and we have a recipe for performance loss. The inflammatory cycle we mentioned from the gut health conversation just piles it on and really limits the recovery process.

  • Pick your spot.

If you plan to enjoy alcohol, make sure you restore your gut health as soon as possible. Eating fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, or probiotic yogurt can help. Keeping up on your fruit and vegetable intake is a great way to keep these healthy bacteria flourishing in the gut. Restoring sleep patterns is another crucial step to recovering from the effects of alcohol. Taking naps and establishing a solid sleep pattern are both helpful tools. As a coach, considering the frequency of your consumption is a huge first step in mitigating the impact of alcohol. Getting yourself out of the 7-14 drinks per week category will go a long way to improving overall health and longevity in your field. Simply skirting the details and limiting yourself to 6 drinks a week may not be the best long-term approach. Some evidence points to the 1-2 drinks per month strategy to mitigate the negative effects of alcohol.

Just to be clear, I am not an addiction specialist, just a coach looking to help other coaches and athletes perform at their best. If you have the risk factors mentioned above or are simply having a tough time reducing your intake, seek out the help you deserve and get things back on track.

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