Sober October – Exploring Drinking Less

Sober October wine glasses

This was my third year doing #Sobertober, a challenge for social drinkers to evaluate their relationship with alcohol. I thought I knew what to expect, but “you can never step in the same river twice…”

No one can walk in the same river twice.

2016 – How often do you hear yourself saying, “I need to cut back”?

The first year, I didn’t even really know that “Sober for October” was a thing. I just felt like I needed a reset on drinking before the holiday season kicked in. I needed to be more ready for the short daylight hours by improving sleep and nutrition to have better energy.

It worked pretty much as planned. Though I found it confronting and frustrating to have easy access to beer and wine in my home environment, I refrained from alcohol for 31 days.

beer temptation

After the month was over, I noticed that my overall alcohol consumption remained lower than weekly levels before the challenge — I’d guess about half — for at least several months.

Like many people, I have a history of binge drinking in my 20’s and 30’s, despite always maintaining my responsibilities. As I aged, I found myself drinking more moderately but more consistently. I’d quit cold for three years one time, so I figured it wasn’t a problem.

As the challenge faded into memory, I relaxed back into a culturally normal and comparatively moderate daily consumption… averaging 3 drinks most days.

2017 – …even if everyone around you is drinking

By the second year, 2017, I realized that “Sober for October” #gosober is a movement in Europe, with a charity element to it. Nevertheless, I thought my name was cute and very me, so I keep #Sobertober as my personal hashtag 😛

My plans for that month included a vacation and Celtic music festival, so an alcohol intensive environment. I found that it was much MUCH easier to be 100% drink free, than “mostly” drink free, which I had attempted from time to time. It can be exhausting constantly deciding if I wanted another drink every time someone suggested. I found that it was more comfortable for me to have some kind of beverage in my hand to ward off friendly offers; if it resembled a cocktail, even better.

Effects of alcohol on the mind/body

As a nutrition expert, I knew about the many long term health benefits of drinking less, like reducing the risk of diabetes, but those ominous outcomes seem so far away, and it’s hard to feel very motivated by the fear of something in the future when the stress of daily life is up to our ears.

Speaking of diabetes though, I can’t ignore the cascade of practical and immediate impact alcohol has on metabolic dysregulation. First, alcohol stimulates a huge release of insulin which crashes your blood sugar, causing cravings for sweet and starchy foods (just when you happen to be less bothered by the consequences of your actions).

Second, the non-nutritive calorie load of the alcohol hijacks the liver until it is all processed, leaving the energy from the extra food you ate to be stored as visceral fat around organs in the abdomen. (Long story short, avoiding alcohol should by all rights result in some weight loss, right?)

The kidneys are also stressed by the increased work, creating a state of dehydration across the entire body. Since improving general hydration results in better looking skin, that’s an immediate win. Now vanity is a motivation I can really get some emotional energy behind!

Processing alcohol depletes the body of B vitamins, directly contributing to mental/emotional symptoms while additional metabolic disruptions reduce your levels of happiness-boosting serotonin, putting you at risk for bad mood swings and aggression that can impair relationships.

Alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system which, when it wears off at about 2-3 am, wakes you right the hell up, screwing up your circadian rhythm. On top of interrupting your normal sleep pattern, alcohol also relaxes your throat muscles which causes you to snore.

I really, REALLY love to sleep. Since I was experiencing all these immediately annoying circumstances, I figured drinking less would cause them to subside. All told, it seems like my relaxing evening drinks habit was really making me Fat, Ugly, Tired and Depressed. Hm, doesn’t sound as relaxing anymore.

However after my second 31 day dry spell in 2017, I wasn’t seeing the weight loss I’d kind of hoped for. I extended the challenge to NOvemBEER, just having some wine with Thanksgiving dinner, yet still no change. I had a lovely holiday after the challenge was over, and found that my consumption reset at a much lower level similar to the previous year.

Though my experience didn’t meet my weight loss expectations, slowly I began to realize that I had stopped *gaining* weight, which was encouraging. And though my snoring didn’t resolve, I got a sleep study and determined that apnea is not the reason I’m having sleep issues, which is a good thing at least.

Connecting the dots

I became aware of other non”alcoholic” people not drinking as a lifestyle choice. I found this article to be incredibly empowering, and helped me figure out how to talk about what I was doing a little bit less awkwardly. 9 REASONS THE LABEL “ALCOHOLIC” SHOULD DIE ALREADY.
My favorite is, “It asserts that it’s normal to consume an addictive substance with ease, and abnormal not to be able to.”

That really resonated with me. I’m not physically addicted to it, as shown by my several relatively effortless dry spells of varying lengths. Even still though, when I’m enjoying drinks, it’s an “evening of drinking” rather than “A cocktail” or “A beer.” This idea gave me a little bolster to be able to choose to not drink on several occasions throughout the year.

2018 – Drinking Less 3.0

Now even Joe Rogan did Sober for October, so I decided this year I was going to write this up to share my experience, in case someone else wants to try it out. Here’s some things you might notice during the first several weeks of experimental sobriety, interspersed with my reflections over the course of the month.

Week 1

I felt restless and irritable, you might also experience anxiety or poor concentration, and may initially have trouble falling to sleep. If you experience trembling hands, headache or nausea, find ways to cut down more slowly. It is totally fine to take baby steps to cut down your alcohol intake throughout the month.

Possible problems with doing this

You can’t undo years of binge drinking damage in 1 month, it isn’t a “reset” in that way. You also can’t “make up” for a 11 months of whatever with one month of abstinence. The most effective way to drink less is to consume fewer drinks per day, fewer times per week.

Avoid judgement. Someone is not more moral (or more fun) than another person based on what they choose to eat or drink.

Don’t just jump back in Nov 1 to your previous level of drinking. Your tolerance will have gone down.

What should someone do if they notice withdrawal symptoms?

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and after years of steady drinking, your body compensates by working harder to keep your nerves talking to each other. When you stop suddenly, your nervous system is still on overdrive and causes effects such as shaking hands, anxiety, nausea, or sweating.

For mild symptoms, a quiet environment, incorporating nutrient dense foods, and staying well hydrated will be enough. If you like, you can support your body’s natural detoxification pathways, the kidneys and liver, with turmeric and ginseng, both known for their anti-inflammatory properties.If you find it pleasant, encourage the skin to chip in with it’s detoxification functions by taking saunas.

For more intense symptoms, consider cutting back more slowly, rather than straight to zero, and consulting your medical care provider.

Week 2

Initial cravings can be stemmed with cardiovascular exercise, which helps the brain get used to not having alcohol. Beware of a sudden sweet tooth that emerges: That’s your brain craving dopamine because you’re not giving it alcohol… brain replacing dopamine from alcohol with known easy dopamine bump from sugar.

This year I’m really noticing that I have a strong craving for a sweet bite, and I’m experimenting with occasionally substituting fruit instead of chocolate. It was not immediately as satisfying, but the cravings did subside.

One realization that has been dawning on me over the last year is, sometimes I drink beers literally because I’m thirsty (or even hungry), the alcohol being largely incidental. Because it isn’t hard for me to down two liter bottles of mineral water “clearbeer/mocktail” in an evening.

All stocked up on Sparkling Mineral Water

I thought as long as I was putting something together, I would review the Netflix documentary “The Truth About Alcohol.” I saw this title and figured it would be worth the 65 minutes, in the spirit of #Sobertober. They test out commonly held ideas about drinking, the healthiness of wine, avoiding getting too tipsy, how it impacts sleep and stress levels, and hangovers.

One really relevant nutrition fact in the documentary stood out however… the polyphenols that purportedly make red wine heart healthy, are also found in copious amounts in plenty of other plant foods such as nuts, berries, onions, potatoes, and spinach, plus many spice/seasonings. Bonus: also tons in coffee and tea.

I’d been hearing about the recent report which concluded that while there may be positive aspects and even some heart health benefits of light (or moderate) alcohol consumption, the detrimental effects to the other organ systems of the body out weighed that, by far.

Drinking too much is associated with many health problems, like cancer, liver disease, and pancreatitis, as well as high blood pressure and obesity, not to mention increased risk for injuries and susceptibility to infectious diseases. In 2016, alcohol consumption was ranked as the seventh leading risk factor for dying early and disability worldwide.
A new study, published by The Lancet, supports previous research that there is no safe level of alcohol, and maximum recommended amounts for men were cut by about a third to align with those for women.

When I published this to my facebook wall, I got some blowback about not influencing people with guilt, which I thought was a weird response to a documentary review, but really hit home the emotional reaction people have when other people talk about drinking less.

grinds my gears smug peer pressure

Now, there’s lots of great things about alcohol, including that it tastes nice. But I feel like it is always helpful to do little experiments to see what is possible and what is worthwhile when making decisions about where to focus in my health and happiness.

Alcohol is just one thing that someone could experiment with a break from. Heck, I could really use some reality checks around cheese. For some people it’s sweets, or starchy foods. In my year long coaching program, there is a two week experiment with only having calorie-free beverages (water, tea, coffee, seltzer, not diet sodas), and there is even a day to experiment with fasting (having no food at all!), to create awareness around hunger signals and feelings about hunger.

Week 3

Once you get started it becomes easier. Environmental triggers and habitual behaviors become dissociated.

This year it seem like an exercise in noticing what’s happening in my environment and what I’m thinking about when I have the impulse to mix a drink or crack a beer – transition from work- cocktail, habit with meal – beer or wine, relaxing in evening +1-2. Weekends sometimes started as early as 2pm, so potentially an additional 2. Becoming familiar with that sense of discomfort has been pretty enlightening, and now I can notice that same feeling in other circumstances.

Abstaining forces you to feel your feelings.
Creating that space between feeling and reaction allows me to evaluate what kind of action or behavior will really address what is causing the feeling.

Drinking Less – A candid conversation about getting more out of life

I also had the opportunity to speak with Tom Cartwright, an expert in helping social drinkers to drink less and get more out of life. His mission is to help 500,000 individuals lower their alcohol intake, & develop a relationship with alcohol that they really love.

I wondered that since I hadn’t lost any weight or had better sleep in the previous years challenges, if a month is really long enough to experience all those great health benefits.

We came to the same conclusion that 4 weeks gives the brain enough time to feel what’s it like without alcohol in your life, but is not enough time to experience the cumulative and slower onset benefits such as noticeable weight loss or substantial money savings. For those, a longer term challenge, such as 90 or 100 days, is a effective time frame to work with.

For some people, alcohol may cover emotions such as grief, sadness, discomfort, overwhelm, despair, or powerlessness. “Around 7-10 weeks in” say Cartwell, “You start seeing profound emotional shifts” if there are experiences of trauma and/or regret to process.

For many social drinkers though, our brains have come to expect a bit of alcohol to help us relax or enjoy ourselves. This biochemical expectation is a bit like Pavlov’s dog. Your body gets the alcohol and knows it is a cue to decompress your stressed brain.

A 90 day challenge may reveal some feelings of boredom, because your mind stays turned on. WOW! What could be accomplished with the time you find empty if not for drinking and recovering from drinking?? 90-100 days gives some time to develop confidence and self-esteem about the success so far.

Here’s a shortcut to avoid stress and get more out of life

As discussed, much attention is placed on the damage caused by alcohol (which while true was ultimately unhelpful in creating a healthier balance for me), but Tom takes a different approach.

People only move or grow to avoid pain or to pursue pleasure. Focusing on avoiding pain, especially future pain like liver disease or losing your eyesight to diabetes, can motivate someone for a little while (maybe after a scare), but is kind of a downer and hard to maintain when you stop feeling the emotional pain.

You also can’t just focus on “not drinking” because your brain does not recognize the negative in “don’t want”. An intention to not drink is just thinking about drinking to your subconscious, which we all know, you get more of what you think about, undermining your conscious logical desires.

Moving toward pleasure by focusing on what you like or want, is much easier emotionally. Focus on things that you get more of when you aren’t putting resource into drinking activities: saving a ton of money, loads of extra time, and you start seeing more of what you want in life. One of Tom’s mottos is, “When you focus on your possibilities, your problems get looked after.”

I asked what are some tips for social drinkers who are interested in trying this out in their own life, and he shared some thoughts:

If you feel like you could be getting more out of life, and if alcohol is keeping you back from that, the the first step is to commit to the decision to drink less. Have a clear expectation for yourself, with a specific and measurable plan.

Expect that it will probably be uncomfortable and possibly awkward. Change very rarely happens when you are doing something comfortable. When you feel there might be judgement for going against social norms, your subconscious is threatened.

Give yourself permission to be an individual. This creates certainty in your mind, and this fosters security which your emotional brain and nervous system read as SAFETY. This soothes the flight or fight reaction of feeling “outgroup”, and upregulates the parasympathetic nervous system to reap the health benefits of social interaction.

Week 4

I started to notice sleeping more restfully and through the night, instead of waking up around 2:30 in the morning.

I may not have lost weight or resolved all my sleep issues with simple breaks from drinking. But it has raised my awareness about how much I might drink without even wanting to, because of the ingrained behavior patterns and environmental factors, and helped me evaluate my habits around alcohol. It becomes easier to have more alcohol free days and fewer drinks on the days I do. My friend Phil noted on one of my facebook statuses, that “Alcohol is more enjoyable when you are the boss of it.”

Inspiring ideas from drinking less experts

One of the reasons it is sometimes difficult to go against the grain and choose to stay sober on a “drinking occasion” is the unwanted effect on your social life. It is so ingrained in the social fabric that it can feel like you’ll be judged for being killjoy or stick in the mud. When you let people know what you’re doing though, it creates a sense of certainty, releasing that energy so you can enjoy the occasion. You’ll be surprised how often someone else will let you know that they don’t really like to drink as much either!

Not everyone is going to want to bring attention to themselves like that though, they’d rather fly under the radar. You could simply ordering some other non-alcoholic beverage like coffee tea or chai, but drinking less can also include alcohol free beers and wines. Non-alcohol beer and wine have come a long way as far as quality flavor and availability.

Mocktails, non-alcoholic cocktails, satisfy the desire to have something in your hand in social situations, whether that’s at happy hour or a holiday party. These can range from as simple as sparkling mineral water flavored with juice, bitters, or crushed herbs to fancy blended drinks made with exotic ingredients such as passionfruit, dragonfruit, or kiwi.

I experimented with a few blends and really enjoyed the ones made with tart cherry and pom juice because they looked just like a wine spritzer. I did the same thing with OJ for a virgin mimosa. A simple recipe for a virgin moscow mule is ginger beer with fresh lime juice in copper mug. No one can even tell the difference. Heck, you could simply have ginger beer in a pint glass and it would be visually identical to an IPA.

sober brews

Along with the emergence of mocktails, there is a resurgence of non-alcoholic fermented beverages such as kombucha (fermented tea) and shrubs (drinkable vinegars). I’ve also enjoyed a relaxing brew made from the South Pacific herb, Kava kava.

Don’t go hog wild on these! Just because they don’t have the alcohol doesn’t mean they are “calorie-free” or even “healthy”. These beverages are treats, to be savored and enjoyed in moderation. This is good sensory and habit training for when you DO choose to enjoy an alcoholic beverage.

But where can you GO to get the “out on the town” experience without everyone getting drunk around you? One of the latest ideas in the field of socializing without alcohol include the Dry or Soft bar, distinct from a coffee house or juice bar in that they focus on late night entertainment with non-alcoholic brews and even more creative mixed libations, often with paired nibbles. It seems that these kind of clubs are few and far between, but I’d like to see these catch on!

Raising the bar (so to speak)

November 1st came and went, with very little fanfare, and I enjoyed A beer with dinner the next night. Over the weekend a friend hosted a cocktail party and made sure to have some mulled cider as an option for me… awwww!! We’d brought the tart cherry juice to make spritzers, and I overheard some positive and curious conversation about our experiences with cutting back. So it does create a ripple effect.

I did notice for the next few nights, that my sleep was more disrupted again. It seems that what might be considered reasonable intake for the average person, is still more than my body will tolerate. I mean, it is a long way from a hangover, but if I am to be honest with myself, I have to ask if this lingering fatigue is keeping me from getting more of what I want from my life, which requires my energy and mood in top working order.

So for me, it is clear that I can maintain habitual consumption levels well above the health limit while still in total control of being able to stop with minimal negative effects. This year’s #Sobrtober really helped me develop the skill of acting in the interests of my decisions. I’m starting to see a crossover effect of making confident decisions and sticking to commitments, raising the standards in other areas of my life.

Choosing to drink less is a great idea especially in the darkening final months of the year which can already be stressful and chaotic with year-end work and social demands.

A sober period provides opportunity to reflect and evaluate your own drinking behaviors, which can lead to a healthier lifestyle beyond the challenge. A test to show yourself that you’re in control, rather than a strategy to stop drinking forever.

Alcohol reduces inhibitions at possibly stressful holiday events. Avoid foot in mouth, drama, or regrets, and drive home safely from parties

Enjoy a reset for the body as winter months approach, which, for some, can be draining and depressing.

The timeframe of a challenge isn’t necessarily about being sober the whole time, it’s about exploring that discomfort. You start by noticing your triggers, but over time begin to realize that you don’t feel deprived when you are doing it because you want MORE for yourself. Having a sobriety period creates a precedent to drink less whenever you choose.

Last year I extended the challenge for an additional 30 days, so this year I’m extending the drink less challenge to my 100-day timeframe, to practice “alcohol consciousness”, making choices on purpose instead of by default and habitual behavior patterns. I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂