Myth-busting: beer

Athletic accomplishments are often followed by boozy brunch. It’s not uncommon to be given a cold can or cup at the finish line of a race. And overall, people drink more on days they work out than they do on days they take it easy, according to research from Northwestern Medicine in Chicago.

Furthermore explored a few common myths about this beloved beverage, including its effects on hydration and the relationship (or lack thereof) between color and calories.

The myth: All beer is equally dehydrating.

The verdict: False

Like all alcohol, beer is a diuretic, says Naresh Rao, DO, a sports medicine specialist in New York City. It blocks an important urine-regulating hormone, forcing your kidneys to expel more water than they do after you drink a non-alcoholic beverage.

If you’re already partially parched from a workout or race, drinking will make it harder for you to retain the fluids you take in, adds Ben Desbrow, Ph.D., an associate professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. In one of his studies, those who gulped down enough regular beer to replace one and a half times the fluid they lost during an hour of cycling still wound up under-hydrated.

If you do want to follow exercise with a brew, consider one with an ABV below four percent. Or, you can opt for a high-sodium option, such as Go Play IPA from Avery Brewing Company or FKT from Sufferfest. Yes, they both have ABVs of 5.5 percent, but studies show higher salt contents make them less dehydrating. Also: eat first. Desbrow’s subsequent research found if there’s food in your stomach, your body retains more fluids, so enjoy a drink with a snack or within two to three hours of a meal.

The myth: All light beers are bland.

The verdict: Not anymore

Producers are increasingly creating varieties that are at once light and flavorful. Take ZēLUS, a craft brewery whose formulas were made with high performers in mind. Its options are often low in calories, alcohol content, or carbs without abandoning taste.

Bigger companies are getting in the game, too. Boston Beer Company of Samuel Adams fame has a new brand: Marathon Brewing. With an ABV of four percent, its 26.2 Brew has nine grams of carbs and 120 calories, carefully balanced with ingredients like Himalayan sea salt and coriander, says Shelley Smith, a marathoner, triathlete, and manager of research and product innovation for the brand.

The myth: An evening beer helps you fall asleep.

The verdict: True—but with a big caveat

While the sedative helps you nod off, it ultimately reduces the quality of your rest, says Matt Delaney, New York City-based national manager of innovation at Equinox. Researchers at The London Sleep Center found that if you’ve had any amount of alcohol, you’ll sleep more deeply at first—but in the second half of the night, you'll linger in lighter stages and wake up more frequently.

These altered rhythms disrupt many of the restorative processes that occur overnight, Delaney notes, including the release of muscle-building hormones. As a result, you might not recover as well from your training, a state that will reflect in your resting heart rate and heart rate variability.

How drastically a nightcap affects you depends on factors including body composition and how quickly you metabolize alcohol, a rate that varies from person to person and is difficult to measure. For Delaney, having more than one drink per night sends his numbers out of whack.

The myth: Dark beers are heavier and stronger.

The verdict: False

Color tells you nothing about body—how heavy or thick the beverage is—or alcohol content. It only indicates how long the malt (the germinated grains used in brewing) has been roasted, which affects taste, Smith notes. Darker means longer, lighter means shorter. Darker beers typically impart flavors such as caramel, chocolate, coffee, nuts, or even burnt-toast, she adds. Lighter malts, meanwhile, have bread-y notes. Think crackers and biscuits.

The myth: Beer can make breastfeeding easier.

The verdict: Mostly false

Pre-Prohibition, Anheuser-Busch produced a low-alcohol option prescribed to the pregnant and lactating based on the belief that beer specifically could help women produce higher-quality milk (and more of it) for their babies.

There’s some biological plausibility. A tiny 1981 reported in The Lancet found an increase in prolactin hormone (which encourages the breasts to start making milk) after women drank beer but not after they downed ethanol or water. This effect was perhaps due to compounds called polysaccharides found in , a common malt base used in brewing.

But modern research hasn’t backed this benefit. Some studies suggest drinking interferes with related hormones in more complex ways, not all of them beneficial.  Others show alcohol puts a damper on milk ejection, or the “let-down” reflex.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that while it’s best to go dry, having one daily drink is likely safe for mom and baby—especially if breastfeeding happens at least two hours later.

The myth: Beer aids in post-workout recovery.

The verdict: Mostly false

After you exercise, your body needs carbs to restore glycogen, Rao says. But regular beer only contains about 14 grams per serving compared to 36 grams in your average sports drink.

What’s more, most of its calories come from alcohol, which is broken down by your liver rather than metabolized into energy for your muscles, so it doesn’t do much to replenish your stores. In fact, adding that load to your liver when you’re already taxed after a hard effort could further delay recovery, Delaney says.

While muscle function and protein synthesis are important, relaxing with training partners helps you bounce back in a different sense. “We’re human beings and our feelings and emotions need to be managed as well,” Desbrow says. “Find a beer with a taste you enjoy and savor it.”

The exact amount you can safely quaff depends on your weight, alcohol metabolism, and more, although Desbrow notes many athletes are fine with two: "That gives you the social connection without damaging your recovery.” When it comes to frequency, Delaney suggests abstaining for four days per week.