Tuesday, October 3, 2017

This is your brain on... (Part 1)

"To alcohol...the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems"--Homer Simpson

G and I realized our drinking had really ramped up over the summer, what with vacation and rosé and not having our kids in the house. It had gotten to a point that was making me uncomfortable, as I found myself thinking "ooh, a drink would make this more fun!" about pretty much every experience, from play dates to movies to board games with the kids. I've definitely successfully cut back before, but I often felt deprived, and I realized to my shock that I hadn't gone longer than a week of call without drinking since my last pregnancy six years ago.

I was idly googling "cut back drinking", as you do, and came across a slew of blogposts singing the praises of "The Naked Mind", by Annie Grace, which is a short book (that I somehow got a link to a free copy) about changing your thought processing around drinking so that you can quit/cut-back without feeling deprived. In brief, she talks about the neurologic changes that occur with habitual drinking, and the dopamine surges that alter your hedonic setpoint so that things really aren't as fun for you without a drink. She also lays out how alcohol actually worsens anxiety and depression and that you don't really relax/sleep well/become more social under the influence, despite popular opinion. It was eye-opening and encouraging. When she started a 30-day-alcohol-free Experiment, we decided to try it for the month of September (I actually signed up for the on-line program, G just said he wouldn't drink).

The underlying mantra of the program is to use this time to see how your life may (or may not, who knows, its an experiment!) be better without alcohol. She is a classic Questioner (like me!) so obviously this approach spoke to me much more than any kind of "challenge" or "streak" or "accountability" would. Every day there was a blog post and a video that centered around, basically, do-it-yourself cognitive behavioral therapy. Teaching your brain different ways to respond to cravings, to find new go-to ways to respond to stress/boredom, to convince yourself into a self-fulfilling prophecy that you will have fun at the party drinking seltzer instead of wine.

We both succeeded (well, I made it 28 days, with a planned ending before my weekend at the retreat, and G did take a 2 day break during his work trip) and it absolutely worked. We drank liters of seltzer, and on crazy Saturday nights we'd spike it with some juice! I made it through a family vacation, work trip with networking events, date night, book club, and countless evenings that I would've just reached for a glass of wine (or two, or three). I totally feel like I can moderate better going forward, and if not, I will abstain again, maybe for longer, because I know I can do it and I won't feel like I'm missing out.

The downside? I did not lose weight like I thought I would. Maybe it was because I took a 2-week hiatus from exercise thinking it would help my back. Most likely it was because I weirdly developed a sweet tooth for the month (that promptly disappeared last weekend after the Friday night wine social), craving the dopamine hit in the form of cookies and ice cream. So it made me wonder---am I just replacing one bad habit with another? Can I really train myself not to look for those mini-doses of "fun" and "excitement" in the form of unhealthy addictions? I think I finally understand the "food should be boring" thing from Katrina Ubell's podcast I mentioned earlier---its not that food should literally be bland and unsatisfying, but that if you do want to lost weight or change your relationship with food, you absolutely do need to find a non-caloric way to meet those needs.

Someday maybe I'll figure this out. For now I'll look forward to ending my day with 2 squares of dark chocolate, a 100-calorie Yasso yogurt bar, or a sensible serving of wine.


  1. Interesting, Ana. I've definitely been drinking more (which is to say, drinking a single glass of wine on more nights per week). It doesn't feel like too much, but I imagine soon it might.... I'd be interested in checking out this program.

  2. This does sound like a really interesting program. The sentence about changing your relationship to food really speaks to me, as I'm really coming to see that I am addicted to sugar. This program sounds like something that might help me, in a way that focusing on a weight loss goal or diet plan doesn't. I am not at all motivated by a desire to look good, but the idea of shedding an addiction is something I can get behind. Plus as I approach 40 I find the idea of improving my health appealing. :)

  3. So... I have a healthy substitute... if your area has a place that sells super fancy fruit balsamic vinegars (we got them local in Santa Cruz and imported from Germany in our nearest city), you can add that to seltzer and it's both good and good for you. Not all will work, but some are tasty.

  4. I have a theory. It's not very scientific, but....

    Whenever I used to eat pasta, I'd eat more than I needed and would be uncomfortably full. Sometime in the 90's, I decided pasta and all wheat products didn't agree with me because I'd get uncomfortably bloated whenever I ate them (even if I managed not to over eat them).

    Fast forward, 20 years later, I was givin the (with the IgG or IgE food panel test, I forget which) and it indicated I was reactive to to wheat (but not gluten).

    Anyway, I also had/have the same issue with sugar and alcohol. I always tend to creep back up to quantities that are higher than recommended (for a woman, 1 drink or less per day is considered moderate drinking; and 2 drinks per day is considered heavy).

    I feel more energy and calmer when I have no sugar or alcohol (or wheat). So I'm wondering if the tendency to over imbibe is related to being reactive in some way to these foods/drink.

    Do you think there's anything to this line of thinking?

    In any case, it's not a moral failing. Just something to keep an eye on how you feel when you're drinking and when you're not and take action like you're doing.

    Good luck! A bouquet of flowers or even one rose can be another treat.