cover

Contents

Cover
About the Book
About the Author
Title Page
Introduction
Chapter 1 The Benefits of Quitting
Chapter 2 50 Tips to Make Your Month Easy
Chapter 3 Habits – and How to Break Them
Chapter 4 Willpower – and How to Get It
Chapter 5 Handling the Hiccups
Chapter 6 The Craving-Busting Diet Plan
Recipes
Chapter 7 Back to Reality
Chapter 8 The 360°-Change Plan
Endnotes
Index
Copyright

About the Book

If you find yourself trying to give up alcohol for Dry January, Dryathlon or Stoptober or you’re plain old giving up the booze for Lent then good luck and more power to you! But how do you actually give up drinking for more than a few days without falling off the wagon?

Quit Alcohol (for a month) will show you the ropes and keep you on the straight and narrow without making your month seem like a year. Includes:

About the Author

Helen Foster is a leading health journalist and author whose award-winning writing has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including Red, the Daily Mail, Glamour and Stylist.

Title page for Quit Alcohol (for a month)

Introduction

30 days hath September

April, June and November

All the rest have 31

Except for Dry January

Which has 5,782

(Tweet by @oconnola, 4th January 2016)

AT SOME POINT in the next 12 months a few million people in the UK and around the world will all pledge to do the same thing – give up alcohol for the period of a month. Some will be doing it to raise money for charity, others want to improve their health or lose weight, some might even be doing it simply to test whether they can – but pretty much everyone at some point during their month-long quest utters something along the lines of the phrase ‘I could murder a drink’. If that sounds like you, this is the book that aims to help stop you drinking it.

Technically, taking a month off should be easy – alcohol isn’t like air, food or water. It’s not something we need to physically survive. In the majority of cases, we can pick or choose whether to consume it and, considering the miserable side effects that occur if you overdo it, giving it up for what’s a tiny fraction of your life should be a breeze – but often it isn’t. We live in a very drinky culture here in the UK. It’s almost expected of us to drink at work, at play, at celebrations and as a way to destress – say you don’t drink and people often look at you with vague suspicion. Going to the pub is a major British pastime – we have over 50,000 around the country to choose from1 and it’s estimated that the average person spends a year of their life in one2. Drinking at home is also becoming a norm. One pound in every £10 spent in supermarkets is spent on alcohol3.

Quitting can be tricky. There are hurdles everywhere. You’ve got to break a habit, you’ve got to use willpower, you may have to fight peer pressure, and you need to find something different to do on a Saturday night rather than simply wander down to the local. Go into a month of abstinence unprepared and you could have a pint in your hand before you can say ‘I’m not drinking right now,’ or spend the whole 30 days feeling grumpy, deprived and miserable. Plan for what you’re going to do though and it’s far easier. You’ll resist temptation, saying no will be a breeze, and you’ll end the month as clinging firmly to the wagon as you were when you started. The job of this book is to help you organise that plan and find the ‘alcohol-free’ approach that works best for you. This combination will ensure your month off will onlyfeel like it lasts 5,782 days if you keep it going that long!

But what you can take from this book doesn’t just stop at the end of the month; it also explores how to keep up a sensible relationship with alcohol over the long term as well. Nor does it cover only booze: you’ll also find advice on how to make other changes including eating more healthily, finding time (and enthusiasm) for exercise and losing weight. Some of these changes might follow on from benefits that start during your month off; others are things you might decide to tackle afterwards because you’ve developed a newfound confidence in your ability to make changes. You see, when it comes to change, success begets success. As you successfully make changes in your drinking habits, your self-belief in making other changes also increases – by this time you next year you could be drinking sensibly, eating sensibly, saving cash and being stress-free (yes, you’re holding a miracle cure in your hands right now!). But before we get to all of that though, let’s just explore the idea of the ‘alcohol-free month’ … Where on earth did the idea come from?

A Brief History of Abstinence

As a concept it’s not new. There are reports from Finland in 1942 of an idea called Drip-Free January which asked people to abstain for the month as part of the war effort. Many people give up alcohol for Lent and Australia’s Ocsober, campaign which asks people to give up booze for 28 of the 31 days of October, was first launched in 2008. It’s generally accepted that the first ‘official’ campaigns in the UK were launched in January 2013 and for this, we mostly have to thank one woman.

Her name was Emily Robinson and in 2011 she decided to give up alcohol for the month of January to help the training she was doing to run a half marathon in the February. By January 2012, Emily was working for the charity Alcohol Concern and when she decided to repeat her month off, people got interested, some joined in and the charity realised this was actually a great idea to help people reassess their drinking habits. In May 2012, Alcohol Concern announced that January 2013 would be the first official ‘Dry January’ in the UK. Over 4,350 people took part4. But in the way that two similar great ideas often appear together, British charity Cancer Research UK also started their own alcohol-free month off in January 2013 – this one called Dryathlon. It was so popular it raised £4 million for cancer research5. One year, two campaigns, lots of non-existent hangovers and from this point on, the trend just grew and grew.

Fast forward to 2016 and figures from one YouGov survey found 16 per cent of people surveyed made some attempt to quit booze during January that year6, and during that same month, the £1 in every £10 normally spent on alcohol in British supermarkets fell to an estimated 46p7. Quitting is also no longer confined just to January. Other booze-free months have launched in September and October and they’re also incredibly popular – the 2016 Macmillan Cancer Support campaign Go Sober for October, for example, saw over 68,000 ‘Soberheroes’ signed up for the challenge8.

It’s also now global. People in 94 different countries signed up to the UK’s Dry January campaign in 20169, but local events are also rapidly springing up around the world. Australia now has three different months of the year when they encourage quitting for different causes, New Zealand has a Dry July, Canada officially launched Dry Feb in 2016 with 700 people taking part, while around 16 per cent of the population happily join in Finland’s version of Dry January.

The idea of all these months is simple – to give us a break from alcohol and hopefully help us reassess how much we drink. Alcohol consumption in many countries is a bit of a concern. It’s been estimated that across the UK we drink almost 15,000 pints of beer and 14,000 glasses of wine every 60 seconds10. On average we’re drinking 65 per cent more than we did in the 1960s11. Nearly half of all middle-aged British men are classed as drinking at levels that might damage their health, consuming on average 16 pints of beer a week each, which is two-and-half the recommended alcohol limit12. Women aren’t faring much better – their issue is drinking at home with a glass of wine (or three) after work or once the kids are in bed. This doesn’t feel like problem drinking, but in fact, the constant, drip, drip, drip of alcohol it provides to the liver can be as harmful as a one-off binge – if not more so. The net result is that June 2015 figures showed hospital admissions related to alcohol grew three times more quickly in women than men13. Overall, the population in the UK drinks regularly and it drinks a lot, only 15 per cent of British men and 21 per cent of women say they haven’t drunk at all in a year14, and our health is suffering because of it. Alcohol is now the third leading preventable cause of ill health in Europe15. At least seven different types of cancer are linked to alcohol intake and then there’re all the accidents people have while under the influence. No wonder the experts would like us to take a bit of a break now and again.

There’s Strength in Numbers

Of course you can quit at any time – start your own No-Booze-Vember or Alcohol-Free August, but there’re some definite benefits of doing it as part of one of the organised campaigns, particularly now they are so popular. Quit during Dry January or Sober October and you won’t be alone and people are less likely to be surprised when you order a soda water instead your normal tipple of choice. You might not even need to order water. Pubs and restaurants realise that millions of people are trying these campaigns – and not all of them want to stay home and rearrange the furniture while they abstain – so some are stepping up to the mark to join in. Come January particularly, mixologists at various bars get creative, adding special Mocktails to their menus. Pubs increase their orders of alcohol-free beers and magazines and newspapers run entire articles on all the different soft drinks you can consume instead of your nightly glass of wine. Fact is, it’s never been as cool to quit.

So Who Am I?

Now some of you might be asking what my credentials to be your booze-free buddy for the month are? Well if you ask some of my Facebook friends, they’d say I’m the least likely person to be able to help (some even laughed when I told them what I was writing about). Frankly, I am known for spending quite a lot of time in the pub. And virtually all my posts on holiday come from a bar where something fun is happening. On top of that, I’m a journalist, and we practically bleed wine.

But my online image doesn’t show the whole story – just because I’m in the pub it doesn’t mean I’m consuming booze. One of my closest friends still mentions how I tricked him for years when we went dancing by buying plain tonic water while he thought I was on the G&Ts. Yes, if you see me in the pub, I am likely to have a glass of wine in front of me – but what you might not notice is that there’s also a glass of ice by my side and every few sips another cube goes in. By the end of the glass 90 per cent of my drink is not vino, but melted ice. If I’m out for dinner, watch carefully and you’ll notice me asking the waiter to fill my wine glass with water rather than putting it in my water glass. As such, my wine glass never looks empty – but nor is it brimming with Sav Blanc as people often assume! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a saint. Hangovers still happen, but when I want to be sensible, I’m actually very good at it. Of course, the theme of this book is not cutting back but stopping completely for a month, and over the last few years I’ve done that too – more than once.

I’ve been paid to do it for work – I had to write an article on how to quit drinking and keep your social life. I quit another time when I was running a half-marathon and I wanted to see if it helped knock any minutes off my time! Once was just for fun. I had lived in Australia, lots of my Aussie friends were trying it and so I carried out an OcSober just to see if I could do it – I lasted a month and half. I abstained again when I was going to have my knee operated on as I wanted my liver in the healthiest state possible so I recovered quickly from the anaesthetic. And then I spent 18 months suffering from symptoms that doctors thought was caused by acid reflux – each new one I saw told me to stop drinking if I wanted to get better so I did (NB: I didn’t have reflux and quitting didn’t help or I’d still be abstinent). I also had quite a few weeks off while writing this book just so I could remember what worked for me – and what didn’t.

Every time I’ve done it, I’ve clearly seen benefits. But despite that it’s not always a breeze. After three pints of water on a night out, I’m normally desperate for a beer to break the boredom! And I admit, I have turned down events during my month off because I couldn’t face struggling through a long night solely on the soda. But temporarily quitting so many times has revealed tactics that work and also what strains temptation to its limits. Between this personal experience, a whole load of tips from friends who have also completed various month free campaigns and more than 20 years’ journalistic experience writing health features on how to break habits and successfully form new ones, I’ve collected enough advice in this area to make me a pretty good ‘booze-free buddy’. I know what the hurdles are, where the pitfalls lie, I know how to fight a craving – and why willpower is not the key to most people’s success. As for ways to moderate your drinking when the month is over to keep within your limits, I’m a genius (even if I do say so myself).

So without further ado, let’s get started with something positive. Every psychologist I’ve ever spoken to has said if you want to succeed at a task, the first thing you need to do is know why you’re doing it and what the benefits are going to be if you succeed. And when it comes to quitting booze – even for just one month – there are an awful lot of positives to discuss.

Months Off Around the World

January

Dry January – UK. Run by the charity Alcohol Concern, it started raising money for purely alcohol-related issues but now raises money for over 12,000 different charities. alcoholconcern.org.uk/dry-january

Tipaton Tammikuu – is the Finnish version of Dry January encouraging people to abstain for the first month of the year.

Sober Start – UK – raises money for LGBT drug and alcohol services. londonfriend.org.uk

February

Feb Fast – Australia. Quit for the shortest month. Money raised goes to youth projects around Australia. Febfast.org.au

Dry Feb – Canada: Officially launched in 2016 it’s linked to the Canadian Cancer Society. Dryfeb.ca

July

Dry July – Australia. Raises money for various cancer charities around the country. The 2016 campaign saw 16,787 people sign up. Dryjuly.com

Dry July – New Zealand. Raises money for cancer services in hospitals and non-profit organisations around the country. Dryjuly.co.nz

September

Dryathlon – UK. Cancer Research UK now organise Dryathlon twice a year – January and September. The September initiative launched in 2015 and aims to give people a break after boozy summers. dryathlon.org

October

Go Sober this October – UK. Raises money for MacMillan Cancer Research. gosober.org.uk

Ocsober – Australia. Raises money for the charity Life Education which raises funds for children affected by alcohol abuse. Ocsober.com.au

CHAPTER ONE

The Benefits of Quitting

FOR MOST OF us, drinking alcohol is a pleasant experience. You have a glass of wine or a pint of beer and enjoy the taste, you enjoy the company you’re consuming it with and, let’s be honest the effects of one or two glasses are quite nice too – that’s one reason why staying off alcohol, even for just a month can be tricky: it’s taking away something that gives us pleasure.

Reading this chapter is the first stage in changing that and ensuring a successful month off. When it comes to making any change in life, particularly stopping something that we enjoy, the number one way to stay motivated is to list the benefits you’re going to get from altering your habits – but to do that you have to know what they are. Thankfully, alcohol is of interest to scientists and so a lot of people have investigated this for you.

Notably, in 2013 a group of 10 curious journalists working on the UK’s New Scientist magazine decided to give up drinking for a month and scientifically measure the impact on their body16. They enticed some willing doctors at University College London Medical School and London’s Royal Free Hospital on board, the doctors made a series of baseline measurements and the journalists set off on their challenge. At the end of the month the volunteers had lost weight, their cholesterol had fallen and their livers were in a far healthier state than before the month begun.

Amazed, the researchers decided to repeat the experiment with more people17. This time the group of 10 people expanded to 104 men and women in their forties who had decided to abstain from alcohol during January. On average, before the trial, the women had been drinking 29 units of alcohol a week (nearly three bottles of wine or 14 pints of lager) and the men had been drinking 31 units, enough to class both groups as heavy drinkers. But within four weeks of abstaining, their livers had started to repair themselves and other measures of health including blood pressure and their sensitivity to the hormone insulin improved, plus they also experienced some clear short-term physical benefits like better sleep and concentration.

Hearing this might be enough for some of you to commit to your challenge right here, right now but if you need more detail read on – I’m about to discuss in detail the six main areas – and the myriad of benefits – that will change if you give up alcohol for a month.

Quitting and your Health

While it’s true that in small doses alcohol can confer some health benefits, drink more than the suggested sensible amounts and alcohol’s effects on the body are quite negative. Abstaining is therefore rather like sending your body on a holiday, giving it a break from something that stresses it out. As such, within a matter of days of giving it up you will start to feel some clear positive benefits.

Your sleep and energy improve

This was noted by people in both of the aforementioned scientific trials, with the experts analysing that abstinence improved people’s sleep by 10 per cent. The reason is simple – alcohol negatively affects your sleep. Not at first, at first it actually acts as a mild sedative causing you to drop off very quickly – this is why many people use alcohol as a nightcap. However, once you’ve fallen asleep everything changes. Firstly, alcohol stops you progressing through the stages of sleep in the same way as you would normally and this automatically leads to more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night. On top of this, scientists in Australia have found that your brain waves actually alter during post-alcohol sleep18. Instead of just producing the sedative delta waves associated with sleep and restoration, the brain also produces alpha waves not normally seen when we drop off. The researchers say this dual-wave activity confuses the brain and leads to a less restorative nights’ rest – the result is that even if you sleep through the night you’re more likely to experience daytime drowsiness, headaches and low mood the day after.

But it’s unlikely you will sleep through the night. You see, normally urine production shuts down at night to allow us to sleep uninterrupted, but alcohol is a diuretic and reverses this process meaning you’re more likely to need to get up to use the bathroom. Alcohol also encourages us to snore by relaxing the tissues of the throat which then vibrate as we inhale – and if there’s one thing guaranteed to wake you up, it’s the digging elbow of a partner who can’t sleep because you’re keeping them awake. Sleepwalking and nightmares are also more likely if you’ve been drinking.

Stop drinking and this changes almost immediately, as such, for most casual drinkers, improved sleep – and the knock-on effect of increased energy that comes with it – are the first benefits you’ll notice as part of your month off.

Your liver regenerates

While changes in sleep and energy are clear physical symptoms you can feel, things are also changing inside your body at a cellular level when you quit. These aren’t as easy for you to spot yourself, but rest assured they are happening – particularly in your liver.

The liver is the main organ of the body that processes alcohol. One potential danger of excessive drinking is a build-up of fat that can develop in the liver as it does this. These fat cells then secrete inflammatory compounds, which can damage the cells around them. Alcohol also damages the lining of the intestine, allowing gut bacteria to enter the bloodstream – if these reach the liver they also have the potential to damage the cells. Over time, both these types of damage can lead to scarring in the liver that at first is reversible, but if you keep assaulting the area you will develop a permanent scarring of the liver that starts to affect its function – a condition known as cirrhosis.

The risk of fatty liver increases for men if they consume more than eight units a day for two to three weeks, for women it takes only five units a day over the same time period to potentially start developing symptoms. You are very unlikely to be aware of this though as generally, damage to the liver doesn’t show any outward signs.

Take a break and the liver starts to repair and reverse this damage. It’s so good at this that according to Danish research even just having one regular alcohol-free day a week allows enough regeneration to reduce risk of cirrhosis19. The NHS is a little more conservative and suggests two or three days off to let repair take place. So you might be wondering if the liver can repair a bit in one, two or three days – what happens if you take a month off? The answer according to studies is that the average drinker will reduce the build-up of fat in the liver by 15–20 per cent and liver stiffness – which indicates possible scarring in the liver – could fall by 12.5 per cent.

Your risk of disease falls

Blood pressure also falls when you start drinking. And it doesn’t take a month to get this boost – you’ll likely see a result in as few as five days. A study of weekend drinkers in Ireland found that after a heavy weekend blood pressure spiked on a Monday but declined throughout the week reaching a low on the Friday20. Don’t drink again that month and it’ll stay low or even fall further.

Abstinence could also lower your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes – a condition reaching epidemic proportions in most Westernised countries. The first stage in the development of Type 2 diabetes is high levels of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood and one common cause of this is that our bodies stop responding to the hormone insulin that normally lowers levels of this. However, after a month off alcohol, the New Scientist team found their blood glucose levels fell by 16 per cent while the people in the Royal Free trial found their ability to respond to insulin improved by 28 per cent.

Blood cholesterol also falls during a month off and that’s a good step toward improved heart health.

As with the benefits to your liver you might not sense any of these changes, but they are happening and your body will thank you for them.

Quitting and Your Weight

Let’s move now to something you will be able to see if it occurs – weight loss. On average people lose about 7lb (3kg) abstaining for a month. You can probably work out why without too much prompting: alcohol contains calories – seven calories per gram if you want to be specific – stop drinking and you eliminate these calories and this alone can see you start to lose weight.

How much will depend on what you normally drink. On average, a single measure of spirits with a diet mixer is the lowest calorie tipple at around 60 calories a glass, the most calories are found in cocktails that mix 4–5 shots of spirits alongside sugary or creamy mixers; these can contain over 200 calories a glass. But don’t get complacent if your drinks don’t come with pun-filled names and umbrellas in the top, two large glasses of wine can contain 370 calories – almost a fifth of the 2,000 calories a woman should have a day.

But as well as the calories in the alcohol to consider, there’s also the extra calories in the things you consume as a result of alcohol to take into account. It’s recently been discovered that when we’re drinking the brain is primed to find food odours appealing – possibly to encourage you to eat and slow down how fast alcohol is absorbed into the system21. As such even if you don’t intend to eat too much when you start your night out, the smell from the local chip shop while you’re waiting for your taxi home is going to be extremely enticing if alcohol is in your system.

Alcohol also stimulates appetite by lowering blood sugar and at the same time lowers your ability to control your actions. When alcohol gets into the brain it dials down our ability to make sensible decisions – all of a sudden that kebab you’d never eat sober seems like a really, really good idea.

If you’ve just had a couple of glasses or have a strong constitution the damage might stop there, but if you’re prone to hangovers you can also expect calorie carnage the morning after.

Have you ever noticed that when hangovers strike, all you want to do is curl up in bed with cups of sweet tea and your own body weight in bacon sandwiches? Or that even if you can’t face food when you first wake up, you’re eating for England by lunchtime. Truth is hangovers don’t just make your head hurt, your limbs shake and your mouth feel like the bottom of a birdcage, they also affect your eating habits and they do so because they send your blood sugar plummeting. Normally when we sleep our body gets fuel from stores of the sugar glucose in the liver, however the presence of alcohol prevents this happening. This causes you to wake up with extra low blood sugar which then triggers your body to start craving food fast to replenish your energy.

And you don’t tend to reach for a salad at this point – sugary food, stodgy food or fatty foods tend to be the hangover food of choice. There’s no definite reason why this is. Some experts say that alcohol depletes levels of essential fatty acids in the body and you translate this need for good fats into the need for any fat, or it could be some kind of call for help from your body, as fat metabolism produces bile in the liver and bile helps you process alcohol. But it’s just as likely that it’s psychological – most of us associate fried or greasy foods with comfort – something you need when you’ve got a hangover.

Eliminate alcohol for a month however and you eliminate the calories you normally consume from it and you avoid the calories you find yourself munching because your inhibition is low or you feel a bit rubbish the morning after – the result of which should be weight loss. I say should though because if you replace alcohol with sugary drinks packed with calories effects will be limited. If you really want to shed pounds as a benefit of giving up booze it’s a good idea to mostly stick with soda water or diet sodas when you go out.

How many calories are in your favourite drink?

175ml glass of 13 per cent wine – 159 calories

125ml glass of 12 per cent sparkling wine – 89 calories

330ml bottle of 5 per cent beer – 142 calories

Half a pint of 4 per cent lager – 91 calories

Half a pint of 4.5 per cent cider – 108 calories

Single spirit (without mixer) – 61 calories

Bloody Mary – 150 calories

Margarita – 214 calories

Cosmopolitan – 116 calories

Martini – 204 calories

Pina Colada – 245 calories

Daiquiri – 203 calories

(sources: Drinkaware and Weight Loss Resources Food Database)

Quitting and Your Skin

Look in the mirror – or even better take a picture – before you quit and then compare how you look a week or two later and you’ll notice a dramatic difference. You could look 5–10 years younger.

The reason is that alcohol noticeably changes the face. As you drink the blood vessels of the body dilate and in the face where the skin is thin you may notice a red flushing around the cheeks and chin and a slight reddening of the eyes. If this is there regularly you might not think it’s abnormal but once you quit you’ll rapidly notice your skin looks less ruddy and your eyes are brighter.

You could also notice your face looks thinner as the month goes on. This is another side effect of those enlarged blood vessels which leak watery fluid into the surrounding tissues creating a bloated, puffy look – especially first thing in the morning. As you stop drinking this fluid drains away and your face will slim.