Recently, as a “kick-in-the-butt” motivator, I promised myself that I would abstain from alcoholic beverages until I finished the first draft of a novel I’ve been working on. I had set a target date for completing the project (June 30th), with the idea that if I didn’t finish by that date, I’d stop drinking booze until I was done. I didn’t think of it as “punishment” so much; rather a modest motivational booster to propel me towards my goal. I enjoy drinking — especially wine — and I knew that going without would help me stay focused.
Well, June 30th came and went with no completed first draft in sight. No problem — it would only take a few more days to finish — soon I would be popping a cork and savoring my first glass.
I did finally finish the first draft of my sci-fi novel … on August 10th. Forty days with no booze. Here’s what it felt like:
None, luckily. Unlike giving up coffee, I felt no physical craving for alcohol, despite having a drink or two nearly every day for at least the past fifteen years. For the first few days, I found it surprising to not have a drink in my hand around 6pm, but this was a psychological effect.
Summary: no DT’s
Giving up drink for a while helped me understand why alcoholism is often linked to highly driven, ambitious, over-achieving personality types. The reason: a drink helps you unwind fast. With a glass of wine, you can go from 60 to 0 in half an hour or less. Without a drink, I found it took me a couple hours to come down from my more intense workdays.
The no-booze period happened to coincide with some particularly stressful work situations; a large software project I had developed went into production and ran into some issues. I managed to get everything sorted out, but that involved some hair-pulling, and working more than a few nights. A glass of wine or a beer would have been really nice to help me unwind. Instead, I stayed over-alert for hours after I was done working, and sometimes (unwisely) went back to work when I should have just called it a day.
After a few weeks of this, I realized I needed a better way to deal with stress. I began to meditate more, sometimes several times a day for short periods. I also tried to take the “big picture” approach to my work (nobody was going to die from any of the software malfunctions, and I would fix them all eventually). These things helped a little, but ultimately the only thing that restored me to equilibrium was working a shorter work day, and allowing more time to unwind.
Summary: booze enables workaholism, because of the fast unwind time
Fat Loss and Water Retention
I got skinnier during this experiment, dropping several pounds below my ideal weight. I also retained less water; after a week or so I noticed my jawline tightened up. My wife said I looked like I had been living in the mountains with bears, subsisting on fish and berries. I guess I looked a little gaunt.
This, despite eating more complex and simple carbs, including a fair amount of ice cream. I had only been averaging a couple drinks a day, so I’m not sure this metabolic change was strictly caloric. I suspect my liver was slightly overburdened by daily drinking, even though I wasn’t drinking huge amounts. I think abstaining from booze allowed my liver to burn fat more efficiently, and signaled my kidneys that dehydration wasn’t as much of a risk (therefore less water retention).
Summary: got skinnier
Definitely better, with fewer early morning awakenings. Also, I found I no longer had to drink a lot of water in the evening to avoid waking up parched the next morning (or in the middle of the night).
Mood and Gut Bacteria
As I mentioned above, I definitely felt more anxious during this experiment, though a good part of that anxiety was because of my work situation. What I did notice was that when my anxiety did finally wear off, I felt happier, and optimistic about my ability to work through the problems I was facing. Sometimes I can get so amped up and worried that my anxiety morphs into despair and inaction, but this didn’t happen while I wasn’t drinking. I felt more resilient.
Alcohol consumption alters the gut biome, reducing strains of Bacteroidetes and increasing Proteobacteria. Gut biome composition is related to mood, especially how we deal with stress. In the study discussed in this interview, mice fed a strain of lactobacillus (L. rhamnosus) and subjected to stressors were much calmer than the control group. The gut bacteria communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve, influencing GABA levels in the brain (it sounds crazy, I know — but read the interview or listen to the show, or read the original study). The genus Lactobacillus is within the phylum Firmicute (and therefore neither Bacteroidetes nor Proteobacteria), but the fact remains that alcohol changes the composition of gut bacteria.
This article discusses the same study in more detail. As part of the experiment, the mice were dropped into water. The probiotic-fed mice were less likely to “drift motionlessly”; instead they swam vigorously and refused to give up.
I can’t explain why I felt more resilient during the no-booze period; the gut bacteria idea is pure speculation. But I definitely noticed a change in my mood. I felt a great deal of anxiety, but it didn’t get me down.
Summary: despite higher stress, a sense of resilience and optimism
I noticed a slight resurgence in asthma symptoms during my forty days without booze. This was the only negative physical effect I noticed. I controlled my symptoms by increasing my vitamin D levels (I had slacked off on supplementation recently), and taking bromelain when needed.
Not sure why — possibly moderate alcohol consumption modulates my immune system, making it less “twitchy” — less likely to react to grasses, pollens, and dust mites. Or it could be related to changes in the gut biome.
I wouldn’t recommend booze as an asthma cure. Try vitamin D and fish oil instead. If you do drink wine, and are sensitive to sulfites, consider supplementing with small amounts of molybdenum, which is necessary to produce the enzymes involved in sulfite detoxification.
Summary: for me, completely abstaining from alcohol seems to be associated with increased asthma symptoms
I’m used to having a drink with friends, and I was worried that my enjoyment of social situations would be dampened by my teetotaling. This turned out not to be the case, at least while spending time with people I liked. I did find it more difficult to remain polite in the presence of people who were actively annoying me, but I managed to hold my tongue in most cases.
First draft is complete, and I’ve had my first drink. I’m relieved that the experiment is over, but I hope to drink less (and less often) from here on out. I enjoyed many of the benefits of not drinking, but it will be especially nice to be able to drink at parties.
I hope to break my habit of drinking every day, and I also hope to rely less on alcohol as a workaholism-enabling crutch. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Study after study points to the probability that light drinkers live longer and are healthier than strict teetotalers. But it’s now obvious to me that I was drinking more than ideally benefited my health. Since I have only one functioning copy of the MTHFR gene, alcohol may adversely affect my folate levels, and perhaps other physiological processes as well.
Hope you found this post to be helpful, or at least entertaining. Please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments.