Just a Drink?

July 31, 2015

How alcohol can affect your dancing the next day—and over time.

After a long week of rehearsal and performances, sometimes all you want is to blow off steam with a few drinks. You may even feel like you’ve earned a night out after all of the hard work you’ve put in. As long as you’re not dealing with an obvious hangover in class the next day (and are of legal age), it’s a guilty pleasure that seems relatively harmless.

But you might want to think twice before you reach for that bottle. Obviously, an excessive habit is going to have negative consequences, and an alcohol addiction could lead to serious problems like cancer, cirrhosis and pancreatitis. But even moderate drinking after a day in the studio takes a toll on your body, affecting your dancing in a variety of ways—and, if you’re not careful, possibly hurting your success in the long run.

Less Sleep, Less Energy

After having a few drinks, you’ll be more likely to feel sluggish in the studio the next day. That’s because alcohol consumption may reduce sleep time and quality, explains Rachel Fine, a dietitian who founded To The Pointe Nutrition. Although a nightcap might increase deep sleep in the first part of the night, once you metabolize the alcohol several hours later, your body switches to a lighter stage and is easily woken up. Without adequate rest, your energy levels and mental clarity will be lower, hampering your ability to pick up and perform movement. Fine also points out that excessive alcohol consumption can displace muscle-building protein, muscle-repairing unsaturated fats and certain micronutrients (mainly B vitamins) from your diet. One study suggests this nutrient displacement causes overall energy stores to be as much as 50 percent lower than normal even eight hours after drinking.

Hydration Problems

Since alcohol is a diuretic, it can cause dehydration, which can last into the next day. And by the time you start to feel thirsty, athletic performance can decrease by up to 10 to 20 percent, according to sports dietitian Dawn Weatherwax. “Hydration is critical to preventing injuries, creating an optimal environment for building muscle, maximizing energy levels and absorbing nutrients,”she says. Keep yourself hydrated by having at least one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage you consume.

Recovery Setbacks

Drinking also affects how your body bounces back after a challenging day of dancing. Research published in PLoS One last year found that when you have several drinks after exercising, the signals that would normally tell your muscles to grow stronger are suppressed. And an earlier study from Massey University in New Zealand showed that excessive drinking delays recovery from muscles soreness. That means you’ll be negating the strength gains you could have been making in class—and hurting from it for longer.

Slower Healing

Time off due to injury doesn’t give you a free pass. In fact, it’s even more reason to avoid drinking. “Alcohol can cause increased swelling of an injury because it causes the blood vessels to dilate,” Weatherwax says. The more swelling in an injured area, the longer it could take to heal.

Lost Nutrients

Regular drinking can also take a toll on a healthy diet. A gram of alcohol provides 7 calories while offering few nutrients. In comparison, the 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate or protein or 9 calories per gram of fat can be used by the body to fuel a dancer’s active lifestyle. “This is where I argue a calorie is not just a calorie!” says Fine. Some dancers try to avoid excess calories before a night out by cutting back on food, but this habit can mean they don’t refuel properly.

Even if you do eat a healthy meal, alcohol makes it harder to reap the benefits. “Alcohol can irritate our stomach lining, reducing our capacity to absorb nutrients from foods, many of which play a large role in energy metabolism,” Fine says. While drinking, your body also prioritizes metabolizing alcohol over fat or carbs, and stores amino acids from protein as fat.

Benefits in Moderation

Alcohol can be helpful in reducing stress levels. But the key is moderation. “If you’re really feeling the need, I suggest wine,” says Fine, “especially red for the added heart-healthy benefits from antioxidants and resveratrol. While research remains limited, resveratrol might help to prevent damage to blood vessels, reducing LDL (or ‘bad’) cholesterol and preventing blood clots.” Beer is also relatively rich in B vitamins, and has silicon, which can help strengthen your bones by increasing bone-mineral density. In general, if you stick to the recommended guidelines (no more than one drink—5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of liquor—per day for women and two for men), the negative effects of drinking are unlikely to get in the way of your dance goals.