Alcohol and Athletic Performance
Alcohol can impact your perfomrance in the classroom and on the field. As an athlete, there are a number of ways alcohol impacts your performance:
- Impedes muscle development & recovery. Not only does alcohol cancel out any gains you might get from a workout, it also causes dehydration and depresses the immune system. Have a sports injury? Alcohol will only slow down the healing process for
sports-related injuries by decreasing the secretion of human growth hormone (HGH) by as much as 70%!
- Impacts memory & retention. When you are drinking or your body is still processing alcohol, your ability to learn new information is inhibited. Memories are NOT solidified when you are studying, they are actually solidified when we are sleeping. Consuming 5 or more drinks in one night can affect the brain and body for up to three days later; two consecutive nights can affect the brain and body for up to five days!
- Constricts conditioning. Calories from alcohol are not converted to glycogen (or energy). The body actually treats the body as fat.
- Inhibits nutrition. Alcohol actually inhibits the absorption of vital nutrients and stimulates appetite and consumption of fatty foods.
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Effects of Alcohol on Your Body
Alcohol inhibits neurotransmitters causing excitation and increases neurotransmitters that depress nerve responses. Some areas of the brain are more sensitive to the content or level of alcohol in the blood (BAC/BAL) than others. Acute alcohol effects on the mind and body include:
- loss of inhibition and increased
- decrease in ability to problem solve or make decisions
- decrease in sensory input, including sensitivity to pain
- exaggerated emotions
- decreased coordination
- potential memory impairment
- impairment of fine motor skills - for example, being unable, without shaking or jerky movements, to touch tip of the nose with a finger when your eyes are closed
- interference with normal sleep patterns and subsequent input of information into long-term memory
- decrease in body temperature, breathing, and heart rates
- increased blood to skin causing sweating and flushing
- increased blood to stomach and intestines
- decreased blood to muscles
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What is BAC?
BAC stands for Blood Alcohol Content, and is the number of milligrams of alcohol per milliliter in your bloodstream. In Pennsylvania, the legal definition of drunkenness is a BAC of 0.08.
If you are a 120-lb. woman who drinks four drinks in one hour, your BAC will be 0.17. If you are a 160-lb. man who consumes five drinks in one hour, your BAC will be 0.14. Of 100 people with a BAC greater than 0.4, statistics show that one will die.
Most people think that if a few drinks make them feel good, then a lot of drinks will make them feel even better. But that’s not true. This is what we call the biphasic (or two-part) effect of alcohol. Here is what happens.
People tend to feel better as their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises to about a level of .05/.06. That’s the first phase or part of the process. If someone drinks more and their BAC rises above .055, the negative effects of drinking increase and the consequences more severe. That’s the second phase or part of the process. So, it’s clearly smart to limit alcohol use to remain in the first phase and avoid progression into the second phase.
The first image below provides a visual of the cultural myth of "more is better" and the second provides a demonstration of the biphasic effect of alcohol.
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How much alcohol is in one drink?
Because different drinks contain varying amounts of pure alcohol, you should be aware of the proportion of alcohol in everything you drink. A 12-ounce beer (5% alcohol by volume) has the same amount of alcohol as a 1.5 ounce shot of liquor (40% alcohol) or a 5-ounce glass of wine (13% alcohol).
However, we know that many students do not consume alcohol in a standard size glass. Many students underestimate how much alcohol they are consuming because they are consuming alcohol in red cups (like the one we see below). Check out the red cup image below to see just how much one serving of beer, wine and liquor looks like!
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Is it okay to drink while on medication?
No, taken before or while drinking, many medications will multiply the effects of alcohol on your body. Aspirin and other drugs prevent the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (found in the stomach and liver) from breaking down alcohol, thus slowing the liver's ability to decrease BAC. In other words, alcohol will accumulate in your blood faster and have longer lasting effects. Women on birth control pills will process alcohol slower than other women, because the hormones in the pill and alcohol both rely on the liver for processing.
To check out a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications that interact with alcohol, click here.
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What are the long term effects of heavy drinking?
There are many serious health complications that can arise from excessive drinking. Someone may develop neurological problems, including impaired motor skills, deterioration of vision, seizures, and permanent brain damage. Long-term heavy drinking will also affect the heart, causing shortness of breath, enlarged heart and abnormal heart rhythm. Someone who has been a long-time heavy drinkers will also be more likely to develop mouth and throat cancer, and also to have high blood pressure, putting them at greater risk for stroke and heart attack. Since alcohol is metabolized by the liver, someone is also at greater risk for alcoholic fatty liver and cirrhosis of the liver. We also know that the use of alcohol is clearly linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. This risk increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. Excessive alcohol use is also known to increase the risk of developing several other types of cancer.
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Increasing my tolerance is a good thing and blacking out is normal, right?
Having a higher tolerance is a red flag for abusive alcohol use. Higher tolerance means you can ingest more alcohol without showing signs of intoxication. If you drink frequently, your body will become accustomed to the effects of alcohol and you will not feel as drunk, but your BAC continues to rise. Increasing your tolerance will lead you to drink more to achieve the same buzz, leading to greater liver damage, increased risk for alcoholism, and other health complications. Someone who has an increasing tolerance is displaying one sign of problem alcohol use, and it is a cause for concern, not celebration.
Another red flag for concern is blacking out. Blacking out is NOT a normal response to alcohol. It is also NOT the same as passing out. Someone who has blacked out can talk, walk, dance, drive, have sex...because they are still conscious but are not forming any memory about what is happening. Memories are not encoded in their short-term memory, and they may experience partial or total amnesia about events that occurred while they were intoxicated. If someone often reports blacking out as a result of their alcohol use, this is a reason to express concern and seek support.
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How can I cure a hangover?
Waking up after a night of drinking is never fun. As part of a hangover, you are likely to experience a headache, body aches, fatigue, heartburn, nausea, and dehydration. Nothing can truly cure a hangover except time (which will vary according to gender, size, weight, tolerance, medications taken, food consumption, dehydration, and rate of alcohol consumption).
However, you can lessen the symptoms by drinking lots of water to combat the dehydration caused by alcohol. Be particularly careful taking any medications. Like alcohol, aspirin can irritate the lining of the stomach, increasing your chances of developing stomach ulcers. Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) is metabolized by the liver, and when combined with alcohol, can cause liver damage. Thus, to avoid further damage to your body, resist taking medication for a hangover.
To avoid suffering a hangover you should consider modifying your drinking habits. Not only should you drink less, be sure to eat while drinking, alternate alcoholic drinks with soda or water, keep track of your use, and make a plan that you share with trusted friends.
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Known as alcohol poisoning or alcohol overdose, it can lead to death because too much alcohol is in the blood. Most often this is caused by rapid ingestion of alcohol from chugging, funneling, drinking games or doing shots, and consuming drinks with a high percentage of alcohol. Many of these behaviors that can lead to alcohol-related emergencies happen through pre-gaming actiivities. Even if a person passes out, the blood alcohol content (BAC) can continue to rise because alcohol continues to be absorbed from the intestinal tract.
- Passing in and out of consciousness
- Passed out or unconscious
- Reduced heart rate
- Used other drugs with alcohol
- Vomiting uncontrollably, or vomiting while sleeping or while passed out
- Cold, clammy skin
- Bluish-colored nail bed or skin
- Breathing slowly or with irregularity (less than 8 breaths per minute), or has stopped breathing entirely
- A head injury
It is important to understand that JUST ONE of these symptoms is cause for concern. MORE THAN ONE of these symptoms absolutely constitutes an alcohol emergency. It is important that you do not leave your friend alone, that you call for help (610-519-4444), and that you place them in a position where they will not choke on their vomit. Check out the image below for the Bacchus Maneuver that shows how you should position your drunk friend.
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Helping a Drunk Friend
What you do to help depends on the state of your friend. Your friend doesn't have to be passed out or throwing up to need your help. Other signs for concern:
- inability to maintain balance or eye contact
- slurred speech
- shortness of breath
- abnormal body temperature (either too hot or too cold)
If you observe any of these symptoms in your friend, but you're not sure whether to get medical help, err on the side of caution and call VEMS 610.519.4444 or 911 (if you are off campus). If you don't believe it's necessary to seek medical attention, here's what you should do:
- Stop the person from drinking alcohol.
- Find a quiet place for the person to sit and relax (walking around is not the best idea if the person has lost coordination).
- Offer water, but remember that nothing except time can help a person "sober up."
- If your friend wants to lie down, make sure he/she lies on their side and place something behind their back to prevent them from rolling over.
- Monitor your friend's breathing while he/she sleeps to make sure it is not abnormally shallow or slow (less than 8 breaths per minute is considered shallow or slow).
Three General Rules:
- Don't leave your friend alone, even if the person is conscious. Watch for signs of alcohol poisoning.
- Don't assume that they will make it home safely. The full effect of the alcohol may not have hit yet. If they start to vomit, have lost motor coordination, or is no longer coherent, it is necessary to seek medical attention.
- Don't assume an unconscious person is sleeping. If someone cannot be aroused, it is a sign of alcohol poisoning not of deep sleep!
How can you help?
If you observe any ONE of the above, call VEMS 610.519.4444 or 911 (if you are off campus) immediately. Continue efforts to wake your friend, make sure they are lying on their side to prevent choking on vomit, and closely monitor breathing.
Check out the image below to see how you should position your drunk friend in three simple steps.
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How to Reduce Your Risk While Drinking.
- Set limits. One way to make sure you do not drink to excess is to decide how many drinks your body can safely handle and do not exceed this limit during the course of the night. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to keep track, especially if you have already pre-gamed or when playing drinking games. Such games may provide entertainment and a chance to feel included in a social group, but they contribute to excessive drinking. Chugging alcohol will delay awareness of how much alcohol is in your body because of the time it takes to raise your BAC.
- Eat a meal before you drink. Food will slow the entrance of alcohol into your bloodstream by preventing it from entering your small intestine which absorbs alcohol faster than the stomach. High protein foods, like cheese, are best at slowing down the effects of alcohol, and thus help prevent a hangover.
- Steer clear of carbonation and shots. The carbon dioxide of carbonated drinks, like beer and soda, increases the pressure in your stomach, forcing alcohol out through the lining of your stomach into the bloodstream. The high concentration of alcohol in shots also means that your BAC will increase rapidly.
- Alternate with non-alcoholic beverages. Not only will this slow your consumption of alcohol, but it will also counter the dehydrating effects of alcohol.
- Don't combine alcohol with other drugs. Alcohol's effects are heightened by medicines that depress the central nervous system, such as antihistamines, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and some painkillers. Other drugs have harmful interactions with alcohol as well, so it is best to consult a physician before drinking while on medication. The combination of illegal drugs and alcohol can also have adverse effects. To read more about alcohol's interaction with over-the-counter and prescription medications, click here.
- Don't drink if you're suffering fatigue or feeling depressed. Exhaustion magnifies the effect of alcohol on the body, and alcohol exacerbates negative mood. For someone who is struggling emotionally, alcohol is an ineffective coping strategy.
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How to Help a Friend with a Drinking Problem.
If you think a friend has a drinking problem, you may want to confront the problem, offer support, and get involved in some sensitive discussions or situations. You can help. Don’t step back believing it’s none of your business. Excessive drinking and drinking problems can be harmful to the drinker and the people around him or her. Many people with drinking problems say that talking with their friends helped them to seek professional help or gain better control of their drinking habits.
Talking to Your Friend About the Problem
- If you care, show your concern. Don’t be too polite to bring up the topic, but be tactful. Ask whether your friend feels he/she has a drinking problem and continue asking questions that encourage frankness.
- Avoid blaming, sermons, lectures, and verbal attacks.
- Keep an open mind about how your friend evaluates his or her situation. And know your own limits — don’t continue the discussion if you start getting impatient or angry. You may find that short, periodic discussions work best.
Once you have raised the subject, your friend may respond defensively, deny having a problem, or agree that he/she has a problem with alcohol.
Dealing with Defensiveness
Make it clear to your friend that you dislike the behavior, not him or her. If you drink, be honest about your own drinking and attempts to control it. Understand that your friend’s defensiveness is based on a fear of facing the problem and it isn’t directed at you.
Dealing with Denial
If your discussions have no effect on your friend’s drinking behavior, you should say how the drinking problem affects you. For example, you can say how hard it is for you to enjoy going out together because you are afraid your friend will get sick, pass out, or otherwise embarrass you both.
Dealing with Agreement
If at some point your friend agrees that drinking is creating personal problems, you may want to ask:
- What is it about your drinking that causes you problems?
- What do you think you can do about it?
- What are you going to do about it?
- What kinds of support do you need from me to stop or limit your drinking?
You may also want to have some referrals ready, such as the University Counseling Center, the Assistant Dean for Alcohol and Drug Intervention, and/or local community resources.
Below is a general list of drinking behaviors as it relates to moderate and problem drinkers and alcoholics. It is not necessary for a person to have every behavior to fit into a category, and your friend may have some behaviors that are not listed. However, this list can give you an idea of whether your friend has a problem and how severe it is.
Moderate drinkers typically:
- Drink slowly (no fast gulping)
- Know when to stop drinking (do not drink to get drunk)
- Eat before or while drinking
- Never drive after drinking
- Respect non-drinkers
- Know and obey laws related to drinking
Problem drinkers typically:
- Frequently drink to get drunk
- Try to “solve” problems by drinking
- Experience personality changes — may become loud, angry, or violent, OR silent, remote, or reclusive
- Drink when they should not — before driving or going to class or work
- Cause other problems — harm themselves, family, friends, and strangers
People addicted to alcohol typically:
- Spend a lot of time thinking about drinking and planning where and when to get the next drink
- Keep alcohol hidden for quick pick-me-ups
- Start drinking without conscious planning and lose awareness of the amount consumed
- Deny drinking
- Often drink alone
- Feel the need to drink before facing a stressful situation
- May have “blackouts” — cannot remember what they did while drinking although they may have appeared “normal” to people at the time
- Miss work or skip class as a result of hangovers or choosing to drink
- Go from having hangovers to more dangerous withdrawal symptoms, such as delirium tremens (“DTs”), which can be fatal
- Have or cause major problems — with the police, an employer, family, or friends
Until your friend decides to face the facts, you may need to set limits on what you will do with or for him/her. Let your friend know what the limits are and stick to them. For example, you might tell your friend that you are not going to give him/her attention during or after drinking, that you don’t want any drinking in your room or apartment, and that you don’t want him/her showing up to see you after drinking.
- Knowing and sticking to your limits is especially important if your friend is denying a drinking problem and wants you to accept excuses or make exceptions for poor behavior.
- Don’t be manipulated into hiding or dumping alcohol, or covering for your friend in front of family, dates, or other friends. Protecting or lying for him/her will not work. Instead, it enables your friend to continue inappropriate or destructive behavior.
- While it is important to be sensitive to what your friend needs to control the problem, you must remember that you can’t control your friend’s life. At some point, your responsibility ends. Don’t feel guilty if you reach that point.
Progress, Not Perfection
In some cases, even though your friend agrees that there is a problem, he/she may be unable or unwilling to act as quickly or directly as you would like. Keep in mind that alcohol-related habits are hard to end or control. If your friend is struggling, try to:
- Remain supportive by recognizing the effort your friend puts into even small attempts to limit drinking.
- Be prepared for some steps backward as well as forward.
- Help your friend make contact with other recovering problem drinkers.
- Encourage non-drinking behavior by planning activities not related to alcohol and by limiting your own drinking when you are with your friend.
Helping a friend with a drinking problem is not easy, but it is very important! Know that you are not alone and use resources on your campus or in your community to help your friend and be sure to take care of yourself in the process.
BASICS (refer a friend or take the assessment yourself)
Assistant Dean for Alcohol & Drug Intervention
University Counseling Center
Office of Health Promotion
Local AA Meetings
Thursdays at 8:30pm, Radnor United Methodist Church
Saturdays at 7:00am, New Leaf Club
Saturdays at 8:30am, Rosemont Chapel
Al-Anon/Alateen (for family members and friends)
(888) 4AL-ANON (425-2666)
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information
24/7 Hotline, English and Spanish: (800) 729-6686
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence
24/7 referrals: (800) NCA-CALL (622-2255)
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