Our Heroes and Heroines, and Social Media

Two of the aspects of drinking that I have been mulling over recently is when people post pictures of themselves drinking (or even just their drinks) on social media. I’ve also been thinking about our drinking icons, our heroes and heroines (both real and fictional) whose appeal lies, to a significant degree, in their drinking.

People not only like to show themselves drinking, they also like to see people drinking. Think about Charlie Harper, Homer Simpson, Bertie Wooster, James Bond and WC Fields. Their drinking is a major part of their attraction. Think of the myriad of other people, both real and fictionalised (or often both) who we idolise, in no small part, because of their drinking.

Why do we like to see these heavy drinkers, both real and imagined, and why are we so keen to publicly display our own drinking?

One of the reasons is that we cannot see ourselves. Sure we get the odd glimpse in the mirror, but we can’t actually step outside ourselves and really look at ourselves and see ourselves as other people see us. We can’t meet up with ourselves and spend some time with ourselves and see what we are really like. So we do the next best thing, we interpret what we are like by looking at others that we think we are like, or even that we try to be like. We view ourselves in the same way we view others we think we are similar to, or have similar characteristics to.

This is why we love to sit down and watch Charlie Harper get up to his drunken shenanigans, or Homer Simpson, or WC Fields, and why we love to sit down and read about our personal idols and their drinking escapades. This explains the fascination for hard drinkers like Oliver Reed, George Best, and Richard Burton.

Someone emailed me recently and said the thing that triggered his stopping was he had been on holiday with his family, and in the taxi to the airport on their way home his son asked him about alcohol. He asked his son what effect he thought it had on him. His son answered ‘It makes you tired.’ One of the reasons something like this can have such a powerful effect on us is not so much that we suddenly realise what we are actually teaching our children, but because children (up to a certain age) have absolutely no concept of other people’s feelings, they have no concept of diplomacy; what they say is exactly how they perceive things. My eldest once once asked me why I had a face like Spiderman, and when I asked him what he meant he said because of all the lines on it. Another time he asked me why I had breasts. If an adult said the same thing I would think they were either joking or deliberately insulting me, either way I would assume these were the main motivators and would not necessarily think they genuinely perceived me in this way. But if a child says it you can be sure that this is simply how they see things. It is said without spite, malice or ulterior motive. If your partner said for example that drinking makes you look stupid you’d simply assume he or she was nagging you in yet another attempt to get you to cut down or stop, but if a child says it we believe them in a way we couldn’t believe an adult.

The comments of children are one of the least distorted ways we can glimpse ourselves as others see us.

The problem with our drinking is that it makes us look like idiots, it degrades us and lessens us. Many years ago I served in the 4th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. One of the many things it taught me was to stand straight, put my head up, my shoulders back, and my chest out, to stand proud and to tackle everything head on. It taught me pride. It taught me that the worst thing that can happen is pain and death, to both ourselves and our loved ones, but even that can be faced without being cowed. It taught me that even a painful and degrading death can be faced with dignity and courage. In fact there is only one thing that ever managed to truly humiliate me, to fully belittle me and to make me look weak and stupid and pathetic, and that was my drinking. In fact everyone knows that drinking makes them look pathetic, and we know it at a fairly deep level. The problem is of course that despite this we still want to drink because it makes us feel good, so we start looking at it from different angles to see if we can’t see our drinking selves in a more favourable light. Our drinking icons are a classic way of doing this; we see ourselves in their image. We see ourselves in the images portrayed by James Bond, Oliver Reed, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemmingway, Bad Moms, Sex in the City, Richard Burton, The Macc Lads, George Best, Sean Penn, Winston Churchill, Olivia Pope, the list goes on. It is not that we necessarily think we are these people, but we see our drinking as they portray it; as comical, rebellious, elegant, tough, cultured, dashing, cavalier, reckless, or amiable. As opposed to the reality; pointless and embarrassing.

We spend a long time building up this distorted and enhanced image but a significant part of us knows on quite a deep level that this image we build up is sheer nonsense, which is why the comments of a child can burst this bubble in an instant, as can someone taking a photo of us or videoing us when we are drunk (Annie Grace actually recommends videoing yourself drinking and watching it).

This process actually goes two ways. We not only deliberately look to see ourselves in this romanticised and distorted way, but we project ourselves in the same way. Hence our posting pictures of our drinking on social media. If you have a glass of wine all on your own at 10am then clearly you have problem, but stick a picture of it on facebook with the comment ‘it’s midday somewhere in the world right?’ or ‘it’s not too early or a glass of wine is it?’ or ‘grape juice for breakfast’ the all of a sudden it’s funny, laddish, roguish, or whatever. Having a vodka and orange for breakfast means you have a serious drinking problem, but when Charlie Harper does it, it’s comical, cavalier, even dashing. Getting up in the morning and immediately knocking back neat spirits is the very definition of alcoholism, but when James Bond does it, it’s tough, gritty, and masculine.

Essentially, the phenomenon of posting drinking images on social media and our obsession with our drinking heroes and heroines both serve the same purpose; it is a way of justifying what we are doing, or normalising it, essentially it is a way of portraying it in a far more positive light. What you have is the same action, but two very different ways of interpreting it. It’s not really surprising that we want to see it in the more positive light. After all, who would want to see themselves as a pathetic, helpless drug addict, when they can see themselves as a gritty, rebellious tough guy?

Fortunately this particular aspect of drinking is extremely easy to dismiss, you just have to look at the reality; it’s all but bursting though the seams of the utterly unrealistic dressing we try to force it into. The images we build up are frankly ridiculous and don’t stand up to even the most cursory of examinations. In respect of the fictional it’s not even remotely close to reality. The general portrayal in films and on television are of people who spend almost all their time with a drink in their hand but it may as well be grape juice for all the effect it has. They never slur, stagger, look tired, get fat, or show in any way shape or form the physical effect of drinking. Occasionally you get an ‘alcoholic’ who knocks back entire bottles of spirits and drinks perfume and mouthwash if they can’t lay their hands on alcohol. Finally you have the ‘normal’ characters who occasionally get fully drunk, usually because they are celebrating or have had something tragic happen. If you had never encountered alcohol and formed your view of drinking from TV, you’d assume alcohol had absolutely no physical effect for the first 4 or 5 drinks, then you suddenly went from stone cold sober to fully plastered with nothing in between. You’d also assume that unless you are compelled to drink 4 or 5 bottles of spirits a day you don’t have a drinking problem.

The ‘real’ drinking icons are just as easy to dispel, but far more tragic when we scrape the surface. WC Fields said when he was close to death ‘I wonder what it would have been like without alcohol?’ Oliver Reed’s legendary death in that bar in Malta was preceded by several months of sobriety (very much putting paid to the belief that he was a committed and unrepentant drinker), and the final weeks of George Best’s life leaves absolutely no doubt that the reality of his drinking was a far cry from the image of him we like to use to justify our own drinking. Vivian MacKerrell (the real-life inspiration for Withnail from the film Withnail and I) was eventually unable to eat or drink anything due to the throat cancer that killed him at the ripe old age of 50, and resorted to injecting alcohol directly into himself through a syringe that was attached to a stomach bag. Near the end of his life he said to his father ‘I never meant to be an alcoholic.’

Accepting That You Will Never Drink Again

One of the problems we encounter when stopping drinking for good is reconciling ourselves with the decision to never ever take a drink again. When we start drinking it all seems like sweetness and light. We have fun evenings out, hangovers are manageable and even the bad ones we take on the chin and see them as a right of passage, something to laugh about and be proud of.

Over the years we start to think that drinking takes far more than it gives, and this creates the desire to stop. However although it creates the desire to stop, for most of us it doesn’t give us the key to stopping. This is because our mind-set at this time is that although the bad outweighs the good, there is still good to it. The main problem is that we get the good, then the bad the following day. When our lives become a struggle we couldn’t care less about the following day, what we want is some relief from our problems NOW (be these substantial and very real problems, or just the stresses and strains of everyday life that sometimes just seem to build up and build up until we just want a few minutes relief from them, to feel carefree and happy, just like we did when we were younger).

These are the years we tend to yo-yo between drinking and not drinking. We want some relief, we want it now, we don’t care how we feel tomorrow we just want to feel carefree and happy and young again. So we have the drink. Then the next day we feel miserable and regret drinking. Because people keep jumping from one to the other they start to question their own sanity, they think there is something deeply wrong with them. How can you want to drink so badly one minute, then regret it so bitterly the next? In fact there is nothing incomprehensible or insane about it, we do something that is in principle identical to this virtually every day of our lives, sometimes several times a day. Indeed it is a central facet of our society. It is called CAPITALISM, or to use a term that most people are more familiar with, SHOPPING.

When we buy something we exchange money for goods. We swop something we want for something else we want. We don’t like parting with money, but we do it to get the thing we want. Most of the times when we buy something we pay upfront, we swop the money for what we want in a single transaction. Often when we buy something it is tangible and lasts for some time. We get it and keep it for a while. But this is not always the case. Think for example of paying for a holiday on a credit card or getting out a loan to pay for it. You go on holiday and have all the pleasure, then when the holiday is over you then have to go through the pain of paying for it.

This is essentially what we are doing during these years of stopping and starting. We are getting some relief from the stresses and strains of life, but then the next day we are having to pay for it. There is nothing insane about wanting the relief but then not enjoying paying for it, in the same way you wouldn’t consider yourself insane just because you enjoyed the holiday but didn’t enjoy receiving the credit card bill afterwards.

However the lucky few move on from this stage. They get away from ‘the good outweighs the bad’ which is the stage of drinking then regretting it, and move onto a stage where they understand that there is no ‘good’ at all. This is the main purpose of Alcohol Explained (and indeed many other books on the same subject). If you can get to the stage of understanding that alcohol provides no boost at all, then this is the key to actually allow you to stop. The desire to drink has gone, and so has the addiction.

However there is another element, another stage if you will. This is reconciling yourself to your decision to never ever drink again. Over the years we tend to use alcohol as our outlet, our pressure valve, it is the thing we use to relieve the stresses and strains of life. These can be huge, monumental and life changing calamities, or they may just be the constant minor stresses and strains that form the background noise to our lives; bills, kids, upkeep of the house and work. However as we get older we also face other things, things like contemplating our own mortality, contemplating our parents mortality, realising that our hopes and dreams are probably never going to come true, realising that the unrewarding life we have fallen into (usually more by accident than by design) is as good as it is going to get, accepting that we’ve had our best years and now all we have to look forward to is the downhill slog to the grave.

For years we’ve believed that alcohol relieved these fears, pressures and worries, and allowed us, for a few minutes, to feel like we (think we) did when we were young; carefree and happy. In our minds we link drinking to nothing less than being able to return to our youth, to accept our mortality, to accept our lives without resentment.

Understanding that alcohol has caused rather than relieved these fears provides the key to our freedom, but for some there is a feeling that in removing drinking we have removed our ability to feel carefree again. To shrug off the stresses and strains of life and to feel young and bold again. These are generally people who can see the benefits of stopping, who understand how alcohol fools us into believing that it is giving to us when in fact it is only taking and partially restoring, but who still struggle with the concept of never, ever drinking again. On one level they feel that they have given up their ability to shrug off the worries of the world and to feel young again. Stopping drinking feels like cutting off a link to their younger, happier, selves.

This is a subtle but a key point, and in essence is exactly the same mechanism as every other aspect of alcohol. Alcohol at the very least disturbs our sleep, prevents us from absorbing key nutrients, interferes with the delicate chemical balance of our minds, and for all these reasons leaves us far less mentally resilient than we would otherwise be. This causes us to worry about things we wouldn’t ordinarily worry about, and to worry far more about those things that would ordinarily worry us. It then partially anaesthetises those fears and thus provides the illusion of relieving worry, when in actuality it has either caused it, or has greatly exacerbated it in the first place. Alcohol doesn’t make you feel young, it makes you feel old, but then partially relieves that feeling. It doesn’t relieve fears and worries; it increases them and then partially relieves that increase.

The feeling of being young again, of being carefree, of facing your own mortality and accepting the course your life is running, and accepting all these things with a sense of humour and an appreciation of the ridiculous, comes from mental resilience, self-confidence and self-assurance. These are all things that alcohol robs you of and then partially restores. These are things you can only fully obtain from weeks of good quality sleep, of allowing your body to absorb all the key nutrients it needs, and above all by no longer interfering with your brains delicate chemical balance.

Diet and Fitness Explained

The new book is now available (links below). It is entitled ‘Diet and Fitness Explained’, but the fitness element is fairly short (some three chapters). It just gives a very high level overview of fitness aimed at the absolute beginner. So for those with an established fitness routine it is probably of less interest, although even then I hope there may be the odd nugget of useful information.

The main thrust of the book is the diet part (i.e. the food we tend to eat on a regular basis). I’ve approached in the same way I approached alcohol in Alcohol Explained. Essentially I’ve sought to explain why we are seemingly attracted to the foods that are worst for us, and what we can do to get back on track.

If you do read it, please do let me have any feedback, good or bad. If the book is of no use to anyone I will scrap it. I have no desire to have a book out there that isn’t benefiting anyone. At best it would be pointless, at worst it could detract from Alcohol Explained, which I am keen to avoid at all costs.

However if it is generally well received I will start work on producing an audio version.

Diet and Fitness Explained on Kindle at Amazon UK

Diet and Fitness Explained on Kindle at Amazon US

Diet and Fitness Explained on Kindle at Amazon Canada

Diet and Fitness Explained on Kindle at Amazon Australia

Diet and Fitness Explained in paperback at Amazon UK

Diet and Fitness Explained in paperback at Amazon US

I understand that Amazon US ships worldwide, if you want a paperback copy and live outside the UK or US.

The Worst Drink You’ll Ever Drink

I was thinking recently about those first few drinks that you have after you have stopped for a while. Those times when you simply ‘give up giving up’. These are always, generally speaking, the worst drinks we will ever have. There are three specific reasons for this that I will be covering off.

Firstly, as we know, alcohol works best when it is relieving symptoms that it has previously caused. A more detailed explanation of this can be found in chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained page which can be found here. However to recap briefly the brain contains a huge store of naturally occurring hormones and drugs (like adrenaline) which it releases at exactly the right time and exactly the right quantities to keep us functioning to our optimal level. It is a very delicate balance and when it is working properly we feel resilient and positive. Alcohol is a chemical depressant (and by this I mean it is something that depresses or inhibits nerve activity). This upsets this delicate balance so the brain seeks to counter the depressant effects of the alcohol by releasing its own naturally occurring stimulants. The alcohol is then processed and removed from our bodies leaving just the stimulants behind. This leaves us feeling anxious, nervous and even out and out depressed (depending on the severity of the withdrawal). When we then drink more alcohol this depresses excess stimulants leaving us feeling more relaxed and feeling far more resilient than before we had a drink. However this feeling of relaxation and resilience is only the feeling of returning to how we would have felt had we never had the first drink in the first place. In this way whenever you have a drink after a period of abstinence it never gives the boost or high that you are actually fantasising about in the first place, because there are no excess stimulants for the alcohol to counter. A drink will leave you feeling slightly dulled, but it won’t give you that boost you were seeking.

The second aspect of this we need to also factor in is that when human beings are happy and relaxed and socialising their brain releases dopamine, which is the feel good, naturally occurring drug. When you have dopamine in you, you feel great. The key here however is that you have to feel relaxed and happy for the dopamine to be released. Because most of our drinking, particularly in the early years, is done in social situations, we are fooled into thinking that the dopamine high we are enjoying is actually an alcohol high. This is a point we need to be clear on. The good feeling you get in social situations is not from the alcohol it is from the dopamine. Alcohol gets the credit it does not deserve. The key point however is that you only get the dopamine high when you are happy and relaxed. If you have stopped drinking and are finally giving in, and giving up your attempt to stop drinking, you are unlikely to be happy and relaxed, you are more likely to be feeling miserable and defeated. So when you take that drink there will no dopamine buzz, you will just end up feeling (on the physical side) slightly dulled.

The third aspect of this is the craving cycle (for details on this see chapter 4 of Alcohol Explained which can be found here). If you are someone who considers that they have a problem with drinking then starting again is never pleasant. It is always preceded by an unpleasant internal mental battle, which is essentially a bout of lying to oneself. People don’t just pick up that first drink and drink it, they go through a mental process trying to justify their taking it. So they may tell themselves that they don’t have a problem, or that they will just have one or two, or that this time it will be different, whatever. Essentially we go through a process of justifying our decision to drink again. However we know on a very basic level that these are just lies and excuses. We may tell ourselves that this time it will be different, that this time will stay in control, but we know from personal experience over many years that this is nonsense.

Let’s take a fairly standard situation. Let’s say you are out at a party, out with friends, or at a wedding. You’re miserable because you can’t drink. You eventually give in and take a drink. Firstly the effect you are craving from having a drink isn’t there. As we’ve already covered the ‘pleasure’ of drinking comes either from relieving the withdrawal of the symptoms that alcohol has previously caused, or from a dopamine high that is in fact nothing to do with the alcohol. If you haven’t been drinking for a few days there are no such symptoms to relieve, and if you are miserable because you have been craving a drink and / or are now losing your battle to stop you won’t get any dopamine high. So the drink will do nothing for you, it certainly won’t give you the boost you were fantasising about. So at this stage you are even more miserable. You’ve’ given in, you’ve failed to stop, you are now right back to square one, and you’ve not even got the boost you wanted. So what do you do? You anaesthetise the misery by taking another drink. This is why so many people, when they start drinking again, refer to the processes hitting the ‘fuck it’ button. It usually dissolves into a complete mess.

The following morning things are different of course. We not only have the misery of knowing we have failed yet again, but we also have the physiological withdraw from alcohol making us feel even more anxious and depressed. So what do we do? Well, there’s only one thing to do, take another drink. This drink of course will give us a boost as we have the stimulants left over from last night’s drinking to relieve, so a drink the following morning will actually make us feel significantly better by relieving the anxiety caused, in large part, to the previous day’s drinking.

The key point to bear in mind is it if you have stopped drinking for anything over 3 to 5 days there is no physical withdrawal to relieve, and the dopamine high is unrelated to the alcohol. So if you do take a drink it will do nothing for you on the physiological side (other than leave you feeling slightly dulled), and on the mental side it will leave you feeling extremely miserable because you have once again failed to stop. You also need to bear in mind that the sole reason you reach for a drink to begin with is due to the mental craving spiral. This is a process it takes part in the conscious mind and is therefore within our power to control.

Alcohol Explained Facebook Group

The Alcohol Explained Facebook group is now created. If you search Alcohol Explained on Facebook you should be able to find it. If you want to join it just do a membership request which I will approve. Any problems drop me a line through the Contact page of the website.

Here is the link to the group:

https://m.facebook.com/groups/133108560878880

Diet and Fitness Explained

Firstly apologies for being out of contact for so long. I’ve been working on a new book about diet and fitness (with the not very imaginative provisional title of ‘Diet and Fitness Explained’). It’s been enjoyable and interesting to write but fitting it around a full time job and a family has been difficult. It is now very nearly complete and current indications are that it is likely to be released some time in mid to late May (the audio version is likely to available around August time).

It is intended to shed new light, and give some new perspective, and hopefully a good overall understanding, of the whole diet and fitness phenomenon. I hope it does this.

Below is a sample Chapter that deals specifically with the digestive system. Other Chapters break down ‘hunger’ into its constituant parts and analyses each part, and deals with which foods we choose and why, and most importantly why we seem to want the foods that are worst for us, and how we can go about changing that.

I hope you find it interesting.

There has been an advertising campaign in the UK stating that obesity is the second highest cause of preventable cancer after smoking. I do not agree with this. Obesity isn’t a cause of cancer, it is as symptom of overeating, and in particular eating the wrong food. Cancer is also a symptom of the same thing. It is overeating and eating the wrong type of food that is the problem, and a problem that causes both obesity and cancer.

We seem to have this rather strange view of overeating, we know it causes us to become overweight and can cause health problems (like diabetes and cancer) but other than this we don’t see any downside to it. The actual immediate negative impact is largely ignored.

In fact digestion itself takes a huge amount of effort. How much of an effort depends on the food we eat. Our bodies find it easiest to process liquids rather than solids, so food with a high water content and a high fibre content (such as fruit and vegetables) are far easier to digest. It helps to have a basic understanding of how digestion works so you can fully appreciate the effort involved.

Once in the stomach, chewed food has to be churned in order to mix it with various digestive enzymes. This churning process is hard work and to undertake it the body redirects a large portion of the blood supply from the muscles in the extremities to the stomach and intestines. This is why we often feel tired or drained after eating a large meal, and why it is not unusual to sleep after a large meal.

After the stomach is through churning, the partially digested food is moved into the small intestine where it is mixed with more digestive juices. Some nutrients are absorbed at this stage then the remainder is passed into the large intestine. There, water and the vital mineral salts dissolved in that water, are extracted and absorbed into the blood stream through thin permeable membranes. The final residue is squeezed along the length of the large intestines and passes out of the story.

The process by which food moves through your digestive tract is known as peristalsis. The organs of your digestive system contain a layer of muscle that enables their walls to move. The muscle behind the food contracts and squeezes the food forward, while the muscle in front of the food relaxes to allow the food to move. The total distance this food has to move is 30 foot. There is 30 foot of digestive tract for it to cover, every inch of which it has to be pushed through by the digestive muscles.

If the food we are eating is difficult to digest then all of this takes a huge amount of effort and while it is taking place we feel drained and tired. As you can imagine although it leaves us feeling tired, and we are tempted to sleep, the sleep we get when digesting food is not good quality sleep. Digestion not only takes a huge amount of energy, it also creates a huge amount of movement and a frenzy of activity. This internal churning, movement and activity disturbs our sleep with the result that we tend to need to sleep longer and feel less refreshed when we wake up. Also, as any physicist will tell you, all energy ultimately ends up as heat energy, so the process of digestion tends to make us warm, which is another thing that disturbs sleep. Lots of the drugs we take on a regular basis tend to disturb our sleep (this is dealt with in more detail in a later chapter) but if you are seem to be tired all the time, and find you wake up at night hot and uncomfortable, you may find changing your eating habits works. Needless to say smaller, lighter meals (and by lighter I mean a greater proportion of easily digestible food, or food with a high water content like fruit and vegetables) is far less effort for our bodies to digest, and making sure you have your last meal several hours before going to bed also helps.

So overeating and bad diet doesn’t just cause us long terms problems like cancer and obesity, it also causes us short terms problems like lethargy and sleep disturbance (particularly if you, like many people, tend to eat a lot in the evening before going to bed). This is a less well known but (for me at least) a far more important impact of overeating and bad diet. Let me be clear on this point, I am not saying that cancer and obesity is worse then lethargy and disturbed sleep, but for me the short-term implications always weight more heavily than the long term implications. Everyone dies, and what happens to me in 20 or 30 years simply has less consideration for me that what happens to me today and tomorrow. This may seem incredibly short sighted and irresponsible of me, and maybe it is, but it is what it is. If you offer me a pleasure today but tell me it may have a detrimental effect in 30 years, I’ll take the pleasure and worry about 20 or 30 years time in 20 or 30 years time. But if that pleasure is fleeting and lasts only for a few seconds, and the detriment will be felt a few minutes after that, and will last all night and into the following day, AND will impact me in 20 or 30 years then there’s no contest. I’ll forgo the pleasure and not worry in the least about it.

Another point to bear in mind with indigestible food (like pizza, burgers, red meat and processed foods like pasta and bread) is that because your body cannot easily digest it the muscles of the digestive system have to work extremely hard to process it. This requires energy, energy that your body is struggling to extract from the rubbish you have just eaten. It needs an immediate and readily available and readily absorbable hit of energy, so you will crave something sweet, something with refined sugar. This is why if you overeat savoury food you can be so full you can scarcely move, be so full you feel physically sick, but still crave something sweet. It’s the body crying out for readily available energy. This is why you often crave something sweet after a large, processed food based meal.
The knock on problem with this is that your body cannot dedicate enough energy to processing the rubbish you’ve eaten, you will feel tied and lethargic as your body struggles to get to grips with it but there is nothing it can really do. It needs to focus far more of your bodies resources to doing this. So how does it do this? It waits until you are asleep, then it really gets to work on it. This is why so many people evacuate their bowels first thing in the morning; it is because their body has worked on the food overnight. The problem with this is not only the effect on sleep which we have already covered, but also that your body is then extracting the vast majority of the huge number of empty calories from what you have eaten whilst you are asleep. As you are not actively moving at this time these calories are far more likely to be stored as fat. Contrast this with fruit and vegetables which are far easier to digest and have readily available energy, but energy that is released slowly so you can actually use it.

This is why you have these well documented cases of people who consume way over their recommended daily intake of calories in fresh fruit and vegetables, and yet are slim and healthy looking, whereas people who consume far less actual calories in the form or processed, nutrient sparse, low fibre and low water content food will pile on the weight.

This is a key point that is worth keeping at the forefront of your mind because it can be confusing. There is all the difference is the world between the ‘slow release’ and ‘indigestible’. ‘Slow Release’ means the energy is absorbed slowly so we don’t get the spikes and lows or hunger straight after. Slow release energy is found in fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, oats etc. It is very easy for your body to digest this sort of food (indeed it is precisely what your body is best able to process), it is just that the energy boost from it is gradual and long lasting. ‘Indigestible’ means your body struggles to digest it. We are often told that ‘slow release’ is best, and this is correct, but then we assume (understandably) that something that is difficult to digest must also be slow release (after all it must take far longer for the body to extract the energy from it) and we also assume that if it’s in us longer then it leaves us feeling fuller for longer. This makes sense until we start to understand that ‘feeling full’ doesn’t always mean ‘not feeling hungry’ or ‘not wanting to eat food’. Indeed eating the wrong food can leave you feeling bloated and hungry at the same time.

This is why fasting has such well documented health benefits. There have been numerous studies on the effects of fasting and there is a clear between fasting and improved immunity, reduced inflammation, reduced cancer incident, reduction in diabetes, reduced heart disease and increased energy levels. There are lots of ways people practice fasting, from methods that require you to eat very little for one or two days a week, to systems that require periods each day consuming nothing, to methods that require you to only eat fruit and / or vegetables for certain periods. The reason that fasting is so beneficial is that digestion is an onerous process and giving your body a break gives it some time to recuperate and also, most importantly, to sleep properly.

We tend to think that eating gives us energy, and it does, but only if we are eating the right food in the right amounts. If you are eating food that is difficult to digest, and eating too much of it, you are going to find your energy levels are constantly low due to the energy being diverted indigestion and the disturbed sleep. This type of food is primarily digested at night when it is far more likely to be stored as fat. This is why, although it may seem counterintuitive, cutting back on food and eating lighter food actually leaves you more energetic.

Obviously if you wish to experiment with different types of fasting than you can do so, the purpose of this book is not to provide rules you have to obey, but to explain the basics so you can do what is best for you. The point I wish to make here is not whether to fast or not fast, but merely to explain how and why eating less, and eating lighter, leaves you feeling more energetic and healthier generally. This has an immediate, very positive impact, and long term impact on your day to day life, and greatly outbalances the frustrating and dubious ‘pleasure’ of overeating and poor diet. When we think of eating / not eating we tend of think very simply along the lines of eating being good, and not eating leading to starvation and being bad. We need to stop thinking along these lines. How many people do you know who have starved to death? How many people do you know who are overweight? The diet associated problems we encounter in the Western world aren’t generally deficiencies, but excesses.

Self-Image

Self-image is a mental picture we have of ourselves. Is it very resistant to change and determines how we act and react, and how we deal with difficult and challenging situations. It is made up in part of a long lasting and stable set of memories. There are various studies to show that this self-image is self-perpetuating, in other words if we see ourselves in a certain way then we act in accordance with that and therefore reinforce our beliefs about ourselves.

If you are someone who has been drinking regularly for several years or decades, then being a drinker will be an integral part of your self-image. You will know on both a conscious and unconscious level that drinking will provide a boost in certain situations (for a full explanation of this see Chapters 2 and 3 of Alcohol Explained, which you can read here). Part of your self-image will be that you are someone who reaches for a drink in certain situations, good and bad. If you think for example about losing your partner, children, house, job etc. you will immediately see yourself taking a drink to deal with that situation.

The problem is of course that when many people try to stop drinking they just do it by cutting out the drink. But just deciding to quit drinking is not enough to stop us, because our self-image remains unchanged, and our self-image is that of a drinker, someone who reaches for a drink in good times and bad.

Stop for a moment now and think. Imagine a situation where you lose your whole family in a car crash, you are left alone in the world. You also lose your job at the same time, but also win the lottery. Do you see yourself dealing with this huge and integral change of circumstances without drinking? Or do you imagine taking a drink? If the latter then your self-image, to a certain degree, is still that of a drinker, whether you have stopped or not.

Some people, when they stop drinking, do manage to change their self-image and start to see them selves as a non-drinker, however many (even those who may have stopped for many years) haven’t changed this self-image. Self-image isn’t just made up of our view of ourselves based on our own experiences, it is also made up of those people that we look up to and aspire to be like. No just famous people like our heroes and heroines, but also our friends and family, even colleagues and acquaintances.

I grew up near Wimbledon in the 1980’s, legends of Oliver Reed’s antics were regularly told (and still are). I grew up reading Bulldog Drummond, James Bond, and Richard Sharpe. My close family all drank, so did my friends. My self-image was formed around this background, and in good times and bad drinks were poured and all the good and bad that life threw up was taken with a drink. Every time something happened, good or bad, I would think about dealing with it by taking a drink. Later in life I found great pleasure in watching WC Fields, Charlie Harper, and Homer Simpson. My self-image was self-perpetuating because I would be most interested in the hard drinkers and the drunks, I would seek them out and watch them, and they would become my role model, my justification if you like for my heavy drinking. I would see myself in their image, not in reality. I was not a pathetic, overweight, physically weak alcoholic, I was the loveable rogue, the tough hardened drinker.

Self-image not only causes us to act in a certain way, it also provides a way to justify how we act. Do you see members of ISIS who torture helpless prisoners to death as scum who need to be wiped off the face of the earth? Or brave and strong individuals taking a stand against an insane world that is spiralling into greater and greater degradation?

How do you think they see themselves?

Do you see yourself as a drinker? Or a non-drinker?

If you are still drinking do you see yourself as someone who is addicted to a drug that makes you fat and weak and lazy and as emotionally unstable as a spoilt toddler? Or do you still see yourself as the tough guy, or the sophisticated lady, as the life and soul of the party?

Changing your self-image is hard, and it isn’t just a case of realising that how you see yourself as a drinker is absolute nonsense, you also need to replace it with something else.

I was always someone who dismissed personal stories about people giving up drink. I always said if someone has managed to stop drinking why should that stop me? Their situation is different to mine, and if it wasn’t I’d have no reason to read their book anyway, as I’d already have lived it! But of course, why these books are so powerful is that they provide us with examples of people who have stopped drinking and deal with life without drink, they provide us with someone we can emulate or even look up to who deals with life on its own terms, without having to have a drink in their hand.

If you have stopped drinking but find you do have the odd thought about taking a drink in certain (often in particularly unusual or unlikely circumstances) then it may be that you still, to one degree or another, have the self-image of a drinker. If you do then you need to start working to change your self-image, you need to find people who you respect and wish to emulate, who do not drink. But you need to be careful. You need to modify your self-image into something positive. If is it something negative you will be miserable and the chances are you will end up drinking again. This is one of the problems with the traditional AA approach. Of all the people I met at AA only one of them was genuinely happy to have stopped drinking. Everyone else, without exception, was miserable to one degree or another, and had to constantly work at their recovery. Relapse was common and even expected. If you have spent years building the self-image of a drinker, then you go to AA meetings and your only experience of people who have stopped drinking are people who are miserable and have to slog through every day just to stay stopped (indeed chances are you sponsor will be exactly this sort of person) then this will form your new self-image. These people will be your new friends, companions, and brothers (or sisters) in arms. You may no longer see yourself as someone who reaches for a drink when something terrible happens, but you will most likely end up seeing yourself as someone who sits there miserable and afraid and fighting cravings and having to go to meetings 10 times a day every time something bad happens to you. This is no good.

Start seeing yourself as exactly what you are; someone who has stopped poisoning themselves with an addictive drug, a drug that has made you weaker (mentally and physically), fatter, unpleasant and unable to deal with even the most benign of upsets. As a consequence of stopping you are stronger (mentally and physically), fitter and better able to deal with whatever life throws at you. Start analysing your drinking role models. Are they pure fiction anyway (like James Bond)? Or even if they are real people do you really believe they were enjoying every minute of their drinking lives, or do you think they were going through the same nightmare you were when you were drinking? I read that just before he died WC Fields said ‘I wonder it would have been like without alcohol?’, and Oliver Reed’s infamous death in a Maltese bar came after several months sobriety, so he was clearly trying desperately to stop.

Moderating

Karyn recently asked about my doing a blog post amplifying the concept of the ‘stimulant vs depressant’ side of alcohol consumption, and its impact on moderation. This coincided with someone sending me an email asking about moderation. Hence this post.

I am not going to go over the basics of the physiological effects of drinking in detail (you can find them in the ‘First 5 Chapters’ part of the website in Chapter 2 if you are not familiar with them) suffice to say the human brain seeks to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol by releasing stimulants. However the human brain only has a limited supply of these stimulants. In the normal course of events only a very small amount of them are needed, however to counter the alcohol (which is a powerful chemical depressant) it needs far more of them. Over time therefore the brain creates more and more of them, and even becomes proficient enough to release them in response to expected, rather than actual, drinks drunk. For example if every time you drink you drink 8 drinks, as soon as that first drink hits your bloodstream your brain will release stimulants to counter the alcohol in the full 8 drinks, not just the one you have already drunk. This is why, for many, the first drink will actually ‘pick them up’ even though alcohol is a chemical depressant (along with the fact that alcohol anaesthetises feelings of tiredness).

I can think of a couple of occasions (literally 2 during 25 years of drinking) when I had 2 drinks and tried to have no more. On both occasions I couldn’t sleep. I realise now that I was so used to drinking more, that my brain would release stimulants to counter the dozen or so drinks I would usually drink, rather than the two I had actually taken. On one occasion I just lay there tossing and turning all night, on the other I made it to the off licence just before it closed and picked up a substantial amount more to drink.
For this reason I conclude that moderation isn’t an option. But just as the brain gets used to heavy drinking, cannot it not re adjust to lighter drinking? What if, for example, I took just two drinks and suffered the stimulant onslaught (if I can call it that) and kept doing this say, every three days? Would my system readjust to the smaller amount of alcohol? I don’t know for definite but logic would dictate it must do. How long would it take? Again I can only guess but it would be days or weeks, rather than months or years, judging from how long it takes the brain to read adjust from other drugs. So isn’t this a way to moderate?
I think the first question must be would it be worth the effort? It would be a fairly unpleasant process. For me the answer is simple; absolutely not. This is because I no longer see any pleasure in drinking at all, indeed I see it as detracting from my personal happiness and mental resilience, so even if could guarantee it would work I have no interest in drinking again.
The next question to address is would it work long term? We already know the answer to this because we’ve experienced it before. We’d go through the same process as when we drank the first time, which is to slowly (or quickly) increase our intake as our ’tolerence’ (which is the name we use to describe the brain’s ability to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol) increased. So even if you were to go through the painful process of reducing your tolerance, the natural tendency would be for it to keep increasing. You would, I think, have to keep going through the ‘stimulant onslaught’ process every few weeks (or even days) to keep bringing the tolerance down.
However there is another factor to consider and this is not physiological but mental. The fact is that long term heavy drinking leads to your learning, on both a conscious and subconscious level, that the withdrawal from alcohol (no matter how slight) can be relieved by another drink. Even if you could return your ‘tolerence’ to its original pre-drinking level, the mental associations would remain. I cannot think of a way of reversing this aspect so the unpleasant physiological process would ultimately be for nothing. Even the very mild alcohol withdrawal of the first time drinker is enough to cause the desire for another drink in anyone who associates the relief of this withdrawal with another drink.
The final overriding point to make is that a person would only want to moderate if they retain some belief that there is some genuine pleasure in drinking. Although I always say that Alcohol Explained is information and ideas, rather than doctrine and instruction, and it is up to the individual to accept or reject it as they see fit, and to put anything they find useful to whatever use they see fit, I can’t help but think that if a person wants to moderate they have somehow missed one or more points somewhere along the line.

Professor David Nutt and his Hangover Free Synthetic Alcohol

There are been a few articles in press recently about a synthetic ‘hangover free’ alcohol that Professor Nutt of Imperial College London is predicting will replace alcohol within a generation. The reason? It is alleged to be hangover free.

In fact very little is known about the compounds themselves insofar as they affect human beings; there is no published research on them so it is very difficult to provide any reasoned comment on this, as best as I can make out idea is that this synthetic alcohol will have much the same effect as alcohol except that when the human body processes it there will be no resulting build up of acetaldehyde as there is with alcohol. It is this acetaldehyde that causes the sickness and headache aspect of the hangover.

The press seems very interested in this and Professor Nutt is obviously a very intelligent and well respected public figure, and this is one of those situations when I am left wondering if it is me that is being particularly obtuse, or everyone else. There are some questions that seem so obvious that I can’t believe no one else has thought to raise them. Specifically:

  1. The hangover is the one things that stops many people drinking to excess. By removing it aren’t you simply encouraging people to drink more?
  2. The compounds in this ‘synthetic alcohol’ are still chemical depressants, so presumable the human brain will seek to counter them by releasing stimulants (for more detail on this point see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which can be found here). So wont this synthetic alcohol still be as addictive as alcohol, if not more so, as people will be able to drink more of it without becoming hungover?
  3. As we know the brain will still seek to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol with stimulants and when the depressive effects wear off the stimulants will still remain. This is what causes the disturbed sleep and tiredness the day after drinking. I very rarely got headaches and sickness when I drank, the main symptom of my hangover was tiredness and lethargy. So won’t this symptom still remain? If so synthetic alcohol isn’t really ‘hangover free’ is it?
  4. Following on from this another major hangover symptom is the feeling of anxiety and worry we have the day after drinking that is a result of the left over stimulants. Again presumably this aspect will remain?
  5. Presumably these synthetic compounds will have a similar affect on the limbic system as alcohol with the result that it will lead to emotional instability (more information of this aspect can be found here). Won’t allowing people to be able to drink more lead to more emotional instability, which is the cause of alcohol related violence, crime, domestic violence, child abuse, etc?
  6. The government guidelines recommend drinking no more than one or two drinks a day. The alcohol industry itself (on the face of it at least) supports this position and encourages ‘responsible drinking’ (whatever that may be). It you drink within these limits you don’t get utterly intoxicated and you don’t get hangovers. So presumably the whole point in synthetic alcohol is to allow people to ignore the ‘responsible drinking’ guidelines and get utterly intoxicated?

The whole point of this synthetic alcohol seems to be to allow people to drink irresponsibly, because if you are drinking responsibly you won’t be getting a hangover anyway. If you introduce something that allows people to drink to excess without having a hanger aren’t you just exacerbating all the ill effects of alcohol on individuals and society as a whole?

Please tell me, am I just missing something obvious here or is this just absolutely insane?!?