- Mental Health»
Larry's Perspective on Sobriety
My experience with alcohol
I'm not a physician. My academic background is in analytical chemistry. Suffice it to say that I'm not an expert on alcoholism. Hence the picture. You can mentally substitute Larry the Quack for Donald Duck if you like.
Nevertheless I'd like to share some of my experiences. These may prove to be helpful for a few others. And yes, this is anecdotal, sample-size-of-one stuff.
Over the years my body has had differing quantitative responses to alcohol. As a young adult, I had an average tolerance. Then a few years down the road, I became much more sensitive. In recent years, I've become much more alcohol-tolerant.
At first, I welcomed the increased tolerance. Scientific studies had suggested that red wine can be helpful for cardiovascular health. However there have been revelations of serial fraud on the part of a major
researcher in this area.
This does not mean that all research on the putative health benefits of red wine is codswallop. Just sayin.
At the time, I did not feel the least bit guilty about having a glass of red wine with supper. After some time, I not only enjoyed the first glass, but felt that a second glass would be nice too. Then it was half a bottle of wine.
My inner voice started saying: Hey wait a minute; that's way out of the healthful range! I also remembered that one of my late uncles was an alcoholic. I'm not an alcoholic, but I consider myself to be at risk. Since my little epiphany, I've chosen not to drink alcoholic beverages on a regular basis. I'm now a cautious social drinker, with the emphasis on cautious.
Most of the time these days, the idea of drinking alcohol feels yucky. But sometimes I do feel comfortable with that idea. But I'm not talking about major cravings here.
When I feel that a drink would be OK, there's always a reason, even if that reason may not be obvious at the time. There are often things that I can do to restore my distaste for alcohol. Do they work for other people? I don't know. Scientific research is needed to answer that question.
Most of my personal discoveries fall under the heading of no-regrets. They are usually regarded as healthful, or mostly neutral if done in moderation. In this hub, I want to steer clear of generic health platitudes that do not apply directly to my tolerance for alcohol.
Is sobriety a moral issue?
Sobriety can become a moral issue whenever powerful alcohol cravings spring up. Saying no is not always easy. This is especially true during the early stages of one's efforts to live an alcohol-free lifestyle. But abstinence is also a technical issue.
Medical research has given us a greater understanding of the problem, and has provided some treatment options. Unfortunately, we do not yet have a silver bullet that will instantly cure alcoholism 100% of the time, with no side-effects. In the meantime, it's best to supplement intestinal fortitude and medical treatment with tactics that stack the deck in one's favor.
For openers, keep a health diary. Some physicians recommend that their migraine patients keep a health journal, in order to identify the various migraine triggers.
Why can't recovering alcoholics and other people with long-term health issues do the same? I've learned a lot from keeping an electronic health journal. I'm a bit leaner than before. I'm a stronger uphill hiker, even though I'm a senior by some measures. The rheumatoid arthritis in my hip is in remission, without medication of any kind. And I'm better able to manage my hay fever, again without medication. Mindfulness is empowering.
For each entry in your health diary, include alcohol cravings, quality of sleep, what time you got up in the morning, the high points and low points of the day, everything that you ate, and a detailed description of all the exercise you did on that day.
Exercise is not generic. Individual strength-training exercises have slightly different effects on how you feel. There are many exercises that don't feel right for me, and I choose not to do these, even if some fitness gurus would shake their heads. At the moment, one-leg squats are the most important strength-training exercise for me. And yes, they do feel good.
For the feel-good exercises, there's an optimal zone. If you go outside of that zone in either direction, you'll get less of an mood lift from that particular exercise.
Anyway, you can learn a few things from your health diary. On some days, the alcohol cravings will be more than usual. There's always a reason. You can learn to identify non-obvious triggers for the alcohol cravings.
On other days, the cravings will be below average. Your health diary can suggest why. You can experiment with diary items from low-craving days. Over time, you'll get a better handle on the problem. And some of your insights will probably be different from mine.
For many, emotional support from outside one's circle of (hopefully former) drinkin' buddies can be a critical factor in maintaining sobriety. What about Alcoholics Anonymous? If one is comfortable with the Higher Power aspect of the famous Twelve Steps, the moral support from AA friends, who are seriously into sobriety, can be uplifting.
If you're still drinking and wish to quit, please do not do it abruptly. 'Cold Turkey' is a good approach for people who wish to quit smoking. But Cold Turkey kills some alcoholics who attempt it. The best option is to 'dry out' under medical supervision. However I don't know anything about the medications themselves. The second-best option, if you don't have medical insurance, is gradual withdrawal.
Once you've dried out, that's half the battle. A recovering alcoholic with whom I've spoken says that powerful alcohol cravings can come from 'out of the blue'. It's important to develop strategies for dealing with the Whiskey Jones.
What about smoking?
In my limited experience, recovering alcoholics tend to smoke more than non-alcoholics. And if I'm correct about that, there's a plausible explanation. The nicotine in tobacco smoke can act as a stimulus barrier. When you're stressed out and 'not yourself', lighting up may be a better alternative than having a drink or three. But in terms of long-term alcohol addiction, there may be a trade-off.
Type 1 cigarette addicts can satisfy their Jones with nicotine alone. Type 2 cigarette addicts have a cross-addiction to combustion byproducts, especially acetaldehyde.
Interestingly, acetaldehyde is also a daughter product in the metabolism of alcohol, and may play a role in alcoholism. For some recovering alcoholics, smoking may keep one's addiction smoldering, when the nicotine self-medication wears off.
For the sake of long-term sobriety, Larry the Quack recommends that recovering alcoholics who have 'dried out' and who smoke, should substitute either nicotine gum or Swedish Snus, whenever the need arises. That way, one would get the stimulus barrier effect, without the acetaldehyde. By the way, that would also decrease the likelihood of dying from lung cancer.
Sleep and exercise
If I have a big sleep debt, I feel more comfortable with the idea of having a drink. Larry the Quack advises people with alcohol issues to simplify their lives, in order to allow enough time for a good, sound sleep on most nights. When they're sleep-deprived, recovering alcoholics should be on guard for increased alcohol cravings.
In terms of alcohol distaste, aerobic exercise is almost as beneficial as good sleep. Many years ago, a brisk 35-minute walk in the evening was optimal for the mood boost, and it helped to kill my taste for alcohol. More than that was not necessary. But since then I've changed my exercise routine considerably.
If you have a taste for alcohol some evening, try eating a piece of fruit, and then going out for a brisk walk. Afterward, is the idea of having a drink or three slightly less appealing than before?
Dopamine and addiction.
Dopamine is an important brain chemical, known as a neurotransmitter. People with Parkinson's disease have dopamine levels that are too low. High dopamine levels can cause other problems, like the vocal tics that I sometimes experience.
Here's one theory of addiction. I think that there's something to it, but that it's not a conversation-stopper.
When the dopamine levels in certain parts of your brain are marginal, you have a physical craving for your particular addiction: alcohol, gambling, smoking, or whatever. Scratching that particular itch will cause a sharp dopamine spike. Then your dopamine levels will abruptly drop down to slightly less than they were before. The craving will return with a vengeance. And you are caught up in a vicious cycle.
My educated guess is that minor food addictions can exacerbate alcohol cravings by the same mechanism. If I'm right, it would be wise to steer clear of foods that 'call to you'.
Here are a few of my food addictions: chocolate, cookies, dates, potato chips, roasted nuts, and sausage. I'm not saying that you necessarily have the same food addictions--or that you have any food addictions in the first place. If you do have minor food addictions, you're probably aware of them by now.
If so, go Cold Turkey on all of them for a few weeks. I'm assuming that you keep a health journal. Note if this experiment has any effect on the intensity or frequency of your alcohol cravings. If it does, then some ABA Testing may be in order.
Reintroduce one of your 'trigger' food candidates for one week, and see if that has any effect on alcohol cravings. Then avoid that food for a week. Repeat the experiment with a different 'trigger' food candidate. After you've gone down the entire list, you'll have a good idea about which--if any--of these foods are safe for you to eat frequently.
Blood sugar regulation
Never let your blood sugar level drop down too far, to the point of having 'the shakes'. In the recent past, this was known as reactive hypoglycemia. Alcohol can bring up your blood sugar quickly. However using grog as a substitute for good nutrition every day can become a habit, and can contribute to alcoholism.
It's best to be on guard, so that one's blood sugar never gets unbearably low. If you're truly hungry--and not just bored or stressed out--eat something, even if it's not 'time to eat'. Sobriety is a higher goal than starving oneself, in order to look like a movie star.
I can recognize low blood sugar, and I've found that certain foods in the daily diet can help to maintain blood sugar within the adequate range. These include meat or poultry, apples, and oats, as well as tea.
If you're an alcoholic vegetarian who enjoys the caffeine jolt from your morning coffee, you might consider switching to tea.
Oolong tea leaves are fermented, but for a shorter time than common black tea. Oolong tea may be more healthful than black tea. I have tried some fantastic-tasting Oolong from Taiwan. The best-tasting Oolong is rather expensive, and I have not seen it in local supermarkets. However I have been able to find the cheaper, blander-tasting Oolong.
There are two nutritional supplements that have been helpful when I've had the shakes from low blood sugar. These are glutamine and cysteine.
Folic acid is an essential B-vitamin. Leafy green veggies are good sources. "Foliage" is the root word from which folic acid--aka folate--takes its name. Other good sources include oranges and also legumes, which include beans, lentils and peas.
Small amounts of folic acid are added to enriched grain products--like flour, rice, and cornmeal--in the USA. This may be adequate for preventing clinical deficiencies in people who don't eat enough protective fruits and veggies. But it's not enough for me.
When my folic acid intake is marginal, I feel that it would be OK to have a glass of wine with supper. Since I do not regularly eat folate-rich foods, I take folic acid supplements: half the RDA at breakfast, and the other half of the RDA at supper. At the moment, I don't take multivitamins, because they have way too much of certain other ingredients, which disagree with me in those large quantities.
My wild, off-the-wall hypothesis is that a moderate serving of ethanol with supper has a sparing effect on folic acid. However I have no evidence for this. All I know is that adequate folate helps to maintain my cultivated distaste for alcohol.
Tomatoes and a final caveat
Tomatoes and tomato products increase my distaste for alcohol. However I don't eat tomatoes every day, because Nightshades tend to exacerbate the arthritis in my hip.
On the other hand, there's been some good press about the lycopene in tomatoes. It's supposed to decrease the risk for several types of cancer.
This and the four sections above are about approaches that increase my distaste for alcohol. But I'm not an alcoholic; I just consider myself to be at risk. Things that work for me may or may not work for you. If my experience is helpful for even one person who's struggling with problem drinking, then writing this hub will have been worthwhile. We need more scientific research on do-it-yourself approaches that help to decrease alcohol cravings.