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Podcast No. 43: Alcohol's Effect on Sleep, Recovery and Performance

October 8, 2019

As part of Sober October, today’s podcast is all about the effects of alcohol. In particular, what it does to your sleep, recovery and performance.

By Will Ahmed

Listen, review, subscribe.

WHOOP VP of Performance Kristen Holmes and Director of Analytics Emily Capodilupo are back to break down all you need to know about how alcohol impacts your body. They take a deep dive into the many ways it impairs your sleep, including why drinking can prevent you from seeing the benefits of any workouts you did that day. Emily and Kristen also discuss data that indicates alcohol likely affects you for much longer than you realize, as well as some tips for how to better prepare yourself if you do have a big night out planned.

If you’ve listened to our other podcasts with these two, you know this one is going to be extremely educational.

Show Notes:

4:05 – Data Shows Effects are more than you likely realized. “Alcohol is a little bit sneaky,” Emily says.

4:58 – Myths About Sleep. “Alcohol is a sedative, it’s not actually a sleeping aid. Sleep is an incredibly active process, our bodies are working really, really hard when we sleep, and if you have alcohol in your system, none of those very active processes can happen.”

5:40 – Impact on Sleep Cycles. “If you think about your typical sleep cycle, you fall asleep, within a couple minutes you typically see your first slow-wave sleep episode, that’s the physically restorative part of sleep, when you’re sedated that just doesn’t happen at all,” Emily explains. “Alcohol actually disproportionately crushes REM sleep, the mentally restorative part of sleep. … You miss your first big REM episode, you miss a lot of slow-wave sleep, you just get a lot of light sleep. You don’t achieve what the point of sleep is actually.”

6:01 – 6 Hours Before Bed can still mess with your sleep, Kristen notes. “There’s some recent research that came out that said if you’re drinking 6 hours before bed, it actually reduces your brain’s ability to process and store information.”

7:37 – Behaviors that Coincide with Alcohol Consumption. “Being properly hydrated, eating well, maintaining your sleep consistency, having a healthy bedtime routine, typically those things go out the window [when you drink].”

8:24 – Lose Benefits of Working Out. “Muscle development is totally compromised, so essentially, whatever you did that day for a workout, you’re not going to be able to get a return on that investment,” Kristen says. In fact, 95% of human growth hormone is produced during slow-wave sleep. Emily adds, “During exercise, your muscles break down, the getting stronger and getting fitter happens when you sleep following that workout. … When you drink, you don’t get any fitness response, or gains from that workout.”

9:27 – Alcohol Can’t Be Used as Energy. “There are 7 calories per gram, but none of it can be converted to glycogen. None of the normal processes that would be taking place are able to when you’re putting a lot of alcohol in your body.”

9:54 – What You See in WHOOP Metrics. “A decrease in heart rate variability, an increase in resting heart rate, an increase in disturbances, less time spent in the restorative stages of sleep,” Kristen says. “And you’ll build strain faster because you’re under-recovered.”

10:29 – Daily Survey Data. When people say they’ve drank the night before, “On average their resting heart rates go up by 8 beats per minute, and their HRV goes down by 22 milliseconds,” Emily notes, “which is a huge, significant change.”

11:16 – Sober National Champs. Emily tells the story of the 2014 Harvard squash team that quite drinking and won the national title. “They noticed that after they drank their recovery scores would stay suppressed for a few days.”

12:47 – Collegiate Athlete Study. “By empowering these athletes with data, they were able to make that decision [not to drink] for themselves. Over the first 4 months on WHOOP, athletes reduced their drinking 76.8 percent.”

13:47 – Hangovers Last 4-5 Days? “Two days after drinking, 30% of them still had suppressed recoveries below their baseline. Three days after drinking, 20% of them were still suppressed, and 7% of them we’re still suppressed 5 days after alcohol.”

15:57 – Adding an Extra Rest Day after a night out drinking is useful for athletes. “The goal is that in moments that matter, you can make these behavioral decisions ahead of time, so when you do drink you can understand and account for it.”

18:07 – Healthy Behaviors to Offset the effects of alcohol. “One thing I do if I know I’m going to have a big night out,” Kristen says, “I’m going to frontload and backload my sleep by 30 minutes on either end [in the days leading up to it]. Hydration is huge, eating well will also help.” Emily adds, “Plan your workouts accordingly too. … Give yourself more time to warm up and cool down.”

19:28 – Increased Risk of Injury. “We know that people who drink tend to have more athletic injuries.”

20:05 – Military Special Ops Case Studies. “After 4 months [on WHOOP] we saw an 83% decrease in alcohol pre-bed,” Kristen notes. “As a result, they spent 16% more time in restorative stages of sleep.”

23:11 – Effect of Just 1 or 2 Drinks. With elite athletes, the small changes are much more noticeable. “When you push your body to this extreme, you become very sensitive to small perturbations in the system.”

25:03 – Tiny Amounts Beneficial? “There’s a lot of research around red wine,” Emily says. “It can help you relax, red wine has polyphenols and antioxidants. … I really do mean a little bit, a sip to half a glass with dinner.”

25:58 – Why Eating Helps counteract the effects of alcohol. “When we eat fats, it slows down everything in our digestive system, so the process of alcohol getting into your blood is slower.”

27:28 – Self-Experiment with WHOOP. “See how your body responds and get a sense of how sensitive your body is,” Emily suggests. “Look at your data, see what happens, find out what you can get away with and what you can’t. We want to empower our users to understand how the body is going to respond.” Kristen adds, “Use your data to give you insights that you wouldn’t otherwise have!”

28:05 – Sober October. “In the spirit of experimentation, consider taking the month of and see what changes you see in your baseline data.”

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance and health. WHOOP members include professional athletes, Fortune 500 CEOs, fitness enthusiasts, military personnel, frontline workers and a broad range of people looking to improve their performance. WHOOP has raised more than $400 million from top investors and is valued at $3.6 billion, making it the most valuable standalone wearables company in the world. Ahmed has recruited an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, marketers, and designers. Ahmed was recently named to the 2021 Sports Business Journal 40 under 40 list as well as 2020 Fortune 40 Under 40 Healthcare list and previously named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40. Ahmed founded WHOOP as a student at Harvard, where he captained the Men’s Varsity Squash Team and graduated with an A.B. in government.