I love AFMs!

People talk about having an alcohol-free day (AFD) – that’s tiddlywinks. Round here I prefer to have an alcohol-free month (AFM). My first AFM was last August, and the first drink I had after a month sans booze was a bit of a let-down; I felt slightly off-balance and uncoordinated but that was about it. Then, after my six week alcohol-free stint through November and December I was even more loathe to break my fast. I knew once that first sip touched my lips I’d be right back to day zero, and I almost didn’t want to go there because I was quite proud of myself and my achievement. I felt a bit ashamed of myself while buying a bottle of wine from the supermarket, like I was some kind of juvenile delinquent who should’ve outgrown their bad habit by now.

I anticipated that by the end of January I’d probably be about ready to take another break from drinking, and so I have. Things are just better when I don’t drink. I feel better about myself and that feeling overflows into other aspects of my life: I exercise more, and when I exercise more I make better food choices, eat smaller portions, and cease to pick mindlessly at food when I’m not hungry. I sleep better too, and I’m far more productive with my time.

I always gain weight when I drink alcohol, it doesn’t matter what else I do or don’t do, it’s a simple fact. I guess it’s because alcohol is high in calories, seven per gram, yet it’s usually additional to the food one eats, not instead of. It also lowers one’s inhibitions, in the realm of food as well as other areas. Do you find all those healthy eating promises you’ve made yourself go flying out the window after you’ve had a few? Or is it the next day, when only a massive fry-up will soothe your hangover?

I’m starting to get the feeling that I might only want to drink once a month. One day, any day, out of each month I’m allowed to drink and that’s it. I need to make rules like this for myself otherwise bad habits start to creep in. Rules are good – I choose them, then I stick with them, and I get a sense of satisfaction for doing what I said I was going to do. Alcohol really doesn’t do anything for me these days anyway. I’m moving on and it feels good.

This AFM is actually five weeks. It started on the 3rd of February and will finish on the 8th of March. From the 3rd to the 8th of March I’m going tramping, like I said I was going to; I am a woman of my word, after all. The last day of the tramp marks my 34th birthday and my guy will come and meet me at the end of the track with Baileys and ice cream. Or maybe I’ll feel so pure after six days of being immersed in nature that I won’t want to pollute my body with alcohol and sugar. Ha, we shall see. I’ll let you know how I get on.

 

 

another alcohol hiatus

The last time I went without alcohol I waited until the end of the month to write about it, just in case I didn’t make it. This time I don’t need to wait – there’s no way I’m going back on the arrangement I’ve made with myself. I’m doing six weeks this time, the first three of which were super-easy; it was almost a relief to know that I wouldn’t have to be making any decisions about whether or not to drink alcohol. But this week, the fourth, things got a little testy. It’s not so much that I’m pining for alcohol, but more that I’m starting to feel a little dull and boring and that I should be having more fun and not being so serious. I hope dullness doesn’t consume me before the next two weeks are up!

The more I experiment with not drinking the more I realise that alcohol and health do not make good friends. Somehow, I used to be able to pull it off – eating well and exercising regularly all week, drinking to excess on a Saturday night, and then nursing a hangover with junk food and couch time all day on Sunday. As an example of what I mean by excess, I remember one afternoon my flatmate and I polished off a litre of white rum between us before going to town and drinking more. Sometimes I’d have such a good time while out drinking that the hangover was worth it. But gradually, incrementally, the fun diminished, rendering the hangover less and less ‘worth it’.

Us Kiwis really don’t know much about moderation when it comes to alcohol. Many of us, it seems, love to get completely inebriated on a fairly regular basis: it’s how we communicate and interact with each other, it’s how we hook up, and it’s also used as a guise for things more sinister. It would be great if we could find ways to unwind and enjoy ourselves without harming our bodies and our communities so much.

So why do we, as a nation, feel the need to get so written off? Is it escapism? Is the reality of our day-to-day lives so bad that we want and hide under a blanket of booze whenever we can, even though we know that the blanket won’t nurture and support us and will only leave us with a stale soggy hangover which makes our stark cold realities all the more difficult to deal with. The unfulfilling job, the loveless relationship, the financial stress, the physical discomfort of living in a body that doesn’t work properly because you haven’t looked after it: drinking won’t alleviate any of these problems and it’s quite likely that it will make them worse. We say that young people today aren’t responsible with alcohol, but how can we expect them to be when they don’t have any positive role models?

When I started this alcohol hiatus it was off the back of three consecutive boozy weekends: a reunion, a wedding, and a birthday. I felt gross. My skin was breaking out, I felt bloated and acidic and disgusting. If you’ve never gone for more than a day or two without drinking you’ve probably forgotten how it feels to not be constantly slightly hung-over. It’s like living with a food allergy – if you don’t completely cut out all of said food (gluten and lactose are common ones), you’ll never get to experience how good it really feels to have a body that functions as it should. That slightly headachy/nauseous/bloated/foggy/uncomfortable feeling is your new reality because your day-to-day habits cause it to be that way. But any habit can be changed, if you want to change it. For me, right now (at 6:00 AM on a Sunday morning without having had a drop of alcohol for a month), it feels more normal not to drink than it does to drink.

Why not come join me? It’s a beautiful world over here.

 

Life after a boozy weekend

As you know, I easily made it through the month of August without touching a drop of alcohol. However, since breaking my alcohol fast I’ve had a couple of boozy weekends, the last of which has wreaked havoc on my delicate constitution. I may as well have drunk petrol, that’s how raw my insides feel. Starting the week on the back foot reminds me of too many weekends spent drinking away my 20s; I’m 33 now – far too old for this shit!

It got me thinking though, about what’s actually happening in my body. What are the mechanisms behind these shit feelings? Firstly, alcohol is acidifying, and us humans like to be slightly alkaline. Secondly, alcohol is corrosive on the digestive system, I can definitely verify that, and it’s probably what caused the pain. If you’re trying to hold on to your good gut bacteria, as I am, alcohol is not your friend. But it’s not just your gut flora at stake here; did you know that 95 % of serotonin (the neurotransmitter that regulates your mood) resides in your gut? So, if your gut is acidic and being corroded by alcohol, is that likely to affect your mood as well? I think so. Sarah Wilson wrote a great article about it here.

Alcohol is also pretty high in calories – seven per gram, but has very little nutritional value. As a comparison, carbohydrates and protein both contain four calories per gram, and fat contains nine. As alcohol is usually additional to the food we eat, these calories provide an excess to what we need, which gets stored as fat which or may not be used later. I know I’ve stored some over the last couple of weeks, but it won’t be sticking around for long.

I’ve also noticed that my hand has gotten sore again. I sprained it months ago attempting to arm wrestle someone who has 20 kg more muscle than me. I didn’t win. I can’t think of anything physical I’ve done that would aggravate it. Could I be producing more or eliminating less uric acid as a result of drinking alcohol? Probably. Could the uric acid be flaring up an old injury? Maybe.

So what am I doing about it? I managed to get out for a run today which improved my mood exponentially. Often, the times I feel like exercising the least are the times I need it the most. I had no energy or inclination for running, but I knew I’d feel better if I could pull it off, and I did (pull it off and feel better).

I’m also on a mission to eat as many probiotic foods as possible. Jason Shon Bennett talks about eating raw, soaked, sprouted, and fermented foods every day. I’ve got some sprouts soaking on the windowsill, sauerkraut in the fridge, I eat yoghurt and raw greens every day… I’m also drinking slippery elm – it soothes my inflamed innards like nothing else.

Grow your internal garden

This blog post is about the importance of good gut bacteria. I will be writing about actual gardening later, but not today. For me, the learning on this topic happened alongside my learning on the evils of sugar.

It all began with an ear infection almost two years ago. When the blocked ear that I’d been ignoring and hoped would go away became a sharp stabbing pain that felt like a needle in my brain, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a course of antibiotics. All things considered, my health has been mostly good throughout my life, and I can’t remember when I last took antibiotics prior to this; maybe never. I didn’t take any probiotics with the antibiotics; I didn’t know how important this was back then. The antibiotics cleared up the ear infection pretty smartly, but left me feeling absolutely exhausted like never before.

Looking back, I’d guess that years of drinking too much alcohol and eating too much sugar had gradually compromised my ratio of good gut bacteria to the not-so-good. This set the stage for the antibiotics to come in and completely wipe out what little there was left of the good stuff, allowing Candida albicans to take over.

Candida is a yeast and like any other yeast, it feeds on sugar. I need to stress here that candida is in all of us, and is meant to be, it’s only when we have too much of it that it becomes a problem. My friend Josie used the analogy of a garden, where candida is a weed – dock or dandelion maybe – that exists on the periphery and goes about its business but doesn’t take over the cultivated plants, which are the whole reason the garden was created in the first place. The garden is filled with nutritious and delicious morsels just waiting to fill our tummies and to colonise our digestive systems with good gut flora. Everything is in balance. However, over time the garden gets neglected and the dock and dandelion start to infiltrate, sending their tap roots deep into the soil and taking hold.

So too with candida: if allowed to take over, its long branch-like structures can penetrate the gut wall and migrate to other parts of the body, including the brain. Molecules of food can also cross this barrier, which they’re not supposed to do –  ever heard of leaky gut syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome?

Some of the symptoms I had when my candida was really bad included brain fog – I’d find myself staring vacantly into space, concentration and mental clarity were at an all-time low. My muscles and joints ached and my recovery after exercise took longer than normal. I also suffered from vertigo – things would be swirling and undulating around me, things that shouldn’t be moving at all, things like buildings and pavements. Chronic fatigue and sugar cravings were also happening.

It’s a tricky one because the symptoms I’ve just described could also be attributed to other things: a sleep-deprived parent could have brain fog, someone who doesn’t stretch or drink enough water could have aching joints and muscles, and anyone who’s addicted to sugar will crave it. I had an underlying sense that something wasn’t quite right with my health, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. It certainly wasn’t life threatening, but it was affecting the quality of my day-to-day life.

If you’re reading this and thinking that you too might have too much candida floating around your body, here’s a really simple test you can do. Very first thing in the morning, before having anything to eat or drink, or brushing your teeth, work some saliva into your mouth and spit it into a glass full of water. Leave it for at least half an hour then come back and have a look. If it’s still floating on top of the water, you’re in the clear. If there are tendrils of saliva dangling in the water, or if your saliva has sunk to the bottom of the glass, sorry but it’s not good news. The first time I did the spit test I didn’t have to wait half an hour for the verdict – my saliva immediately started drifting down through the water and within a minute or two it had all sunk to the bottom and looked white and powdery. Damn.

The only way to get your candida back in check is to starve it of sugar. Initially, I didn’t think there was all that much sugar in my diet, but when I had a closer look there was actually quite a lot. Lots of fruit, lots of honey, maple syrup, I added sugar to my coffee, I treated myself to dried fruit or lollies about once a week. It was certainly enough to feed the beast. One of the (many) annoying things about candida is that once you start starving it the symptoms actually get worse. The candida starts to die and as it does so it releases toxins, it really sucks. One of the symptoms of die-off is irrational anger, so be warned. Just add it to your arsenal of chronic fatigue, brain fog, and general aches and pains.

Going into this, a life without sugar seemed, to me, like a life that wasn’t worth living. I thought to myself “I’ll just do it until I get better, then I’ll go back to my old way of eating”. So that’s what I did. I was fastidiously healthy all week – no sugar, lots of cruciferous vegetables, sprouts, fermented foods, cider vinegar… Then the weekend would roll around and I wouldn’t be able to sustain it. I’d drink alcohol, which is a big no-no (candida loves it) then in the aftermath of the drinking I’d make poor food choices: chocolate, lollies, ice cream… All my good work was undone. So let me tell you, from personal experience, it won’t work if you only do it sometimes, it has to be 100 %, or you may as well not bother with it at all. Let me also tell you, the rewards are well worth the effort. Do you want to live a life where you feel a bit below average all of the time, or are you willing to deal with some potentially full-on shit in order to get to a really good place?

So, if you’re serious about getting your overgrown garden back in order, yes you have to pull out the weeds, but you also have to put the good stuff back in. Taking a probiotic supplement can definitely help, but take an enteric one so that the bacteria will be released into your intestines, not your stomach where your hydrochloric acid will destroy most of it. The brand I use is called Reuteri. You also want to eat lots of foods that naturally contain probiotics rather than just relying on a pill. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) are your friends, as are fermented foods – sauerkraut really helped for me.

Eating all these alkalising vegetables will also help bring your pH back to where it should be. Sugar acidifies your body (as does coffee, alcohol, grains, dairy and meat) but your body really loves to be just slightly alkaline, and will draw alkalising minerals out of your bones if it has to, in order to keep things the way they’re meant to be. Your body will also hold onto fat and use it to insulate your cells from your blood, which will become increasingly acidic if you eat too much crap and not enough good stuff. I read about this in Dr Libby Weaver’s book The Real Food Chef.

For me, the journey to health is just that – it’s a journey not a destination (I know that this is a cliché but it’s so true!). I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where I can say health has been achieved and then rest on my laurels because of all the work I put in way back when. It doesn’t work like that. A functional and bountiful garden requires constant maintenance; you can’t just pull the weeds out once and expect them never to return. Nor can you throw some seedlings in the ground and come back in a month or two expecting to find them flourishing. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. Right, I’m off to eat some sauerkraut.

My Dry August

I decided to give up alcohol for the month of August. I’m not a heavy drinker, but I do find that unhealthy habits tend to creep in when I don’t make rules for myself. Mostly I just wanted to see what it was like. I wanted to see what I would do in the instances when I would normally have a drink, like on a Friday evening when work’s done for the week, or at the end of a particularly crap day, or in a social situation where everyone else was drinking.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink during the last five or so days of July, so (technically) I’ve already done a month. But I won’t break my alcohol fast until the first of September, which happens to be a Sunday, and the first day of spring – I’ll drink to that! So how’s it been going for a month without alcohol? Surprisingly easy actually. I did choose the month of August for a reason though: it’s the last month of winter here in New Zealand, so there’s not a hell of a lot going on. I’m also finishing up at a job I’ve been doing over winter, and preparing to focus my energy on being an awesome personal trainer. So I wanted to have a clear mind and a healthy body so that I could get stuff done. Coincidentally, I also started this blog.

Usually, for me, when I make a decision that involves a lifestyle change, I will have mulled it over in my mind for quite a while first. When I start acting on the decision, my resolve is already set and I’ll unwaveringly stick with it. Making the decision in the first place can be the hardest part; once the decision’s been made then there’s no turning back.

So let’s talk a little bit about the way that I drink. I don’t drink beer or wine; the one exception to this is Stone’s green ginger wine, which I love (but have watered down with ice and lemon juice). Other than that, I usually reach for the top shelf: gin and tonic in summer (Bombay Sapphire all the way), whisky and dry in winter (Jameson’s or Canadian Club).

In case you’re wondering, I made this drink for photographic purposes and refrained from adding any gin.

Now, I feel like a bit of a hypocrite because I mentioned in an earlier post that I don’t eat sugar, so let’s break this down. There’s no sugar in the gin or the whisky – the sugar has become alcohol. There is some sugar in the mixer though. The tonic that I use (Schweppes – not diet) is 8.9 % sugar, and the dry ginger ale is 9.8 % sugar. As a comparison, milk is 4.7 % sugar – that’s from the naturally occurring lactose in it. As another comparison, coke and apple juice are 10.6 and 10.2 %, respectively. So I make myself a gin and tonic: I start with lots of ice, I then add the alcohol, then the juice of a lemon or a lime, a sprig of mint, then the tonic. By the time the tonic goes in the glass is already half full, so, 8.9 % of half a glass = not much really. The alcohol is doing as much harm as the sugar is, in this instance.

What kind of harm? Well, interestingly, the body metabolises alcohol in almost the same way as it metabolises sugar (the fructose part anyway, which is one of the monosaccharides that forms sucrose (table sugar); glucose is the other). The liver is responsible for breaking down both the alcohol and the fructose, and they both produce the same by-product: fat. Also, because alcohol is a toxin, the body has to prioritise the metabolism of it over and above many of its numerous other important jobs, which all have to sit on the back burner until the alcohol’s been dealt with.

So, have I felt any benefits from not drinking for a month? Yes I have. My digestive system feels clean and clear and healthy. Anyone who’s had a big night on the booze will know how corrosive and inflammatory and acidifying alcohol can be. Plus I haven’t had to deal with anything remotely resembling a hangover. Am I looking forward to having a drink tomorrow? Yes I am. I think my beloved is looking forward to it almost more than I am though. I promised I wouldn’t be boring, going sober for a month, but maybe I have been a little dull compared to my intoxicated alter ego.

I intend to make amends for that tomorrow.