Summer is the season of rosé-soaked lunches and generous G&Ts, regardless of the weather.
But those breezy days of carefree carousing can take their toll, and if you sense it’s time to wean yourself off the Chablis for a month, there’s no need to wait. Dry January may be a growing tradition, but post-summer sobriety is very popular too.
As a leading health writer and author of Quit Alcohol (For A Month), allow me to be your friendly booze-free guide.
I’m no saint — hangovers still happen — but having given up alcohol several times over the past 20 years, for both work and health reasons, I’ve perfected the art of embracing sobriety.
Health writer Helen Foster shared the ultimate tips for reducing alcohol consumption to gain desired health benefits such as weightloss and improved sleep (file image)
I know the pitfalls, how to break entrenched habits and conquer those wine-o-clock cravings. Follow my advice and not only will you succeed in swapping Sauvignon for soft drinks, you’ll enjoy the journey too.
GLOWING SKIN AND A FLAT TUMMY, ANYONE?
The key to succeeding at any task is to know why it’s important to you, so focus on the things you’ll gain. Ditch alcohol for a month and you’ll:
Feel brighter and sharper. Being booze-free improves sleep by 10 per cent, say scientists. Alcohol disrupts the restorative REM stage, when the brain consolidates memories. So give up booze and your sleep quality, concentration and thinking powers will get better.
Lose weight. On average, people shed a hefty 7 lb if they stop drinking for just a month. Not only do two large glasses of wine contain about 370 calories, but they also lower blood sugar, which makes you hungry.
Your decision-making is also affected, which explains your inability to resist chips or a bacon sandwich after a heavy night. Alcohol also causes fluid retention and bloating, so after a few days’ abstinence you may find your stomach has shrunk.
Get glowing skin. Drinking causes blood vessels to dilate, which can lead to ruddy cheeks and a puffy face. Alcohol also dehydrates skin, which emphasises fine lines and wrinkles. Think of quitting booze for a month as a free facial.
Research has shown that reducing alcohol consumption can help to shed up to 7lbs in one month (file image)
CREATE A NEW WAY TO COME HOME
After work, we kick off our shoes, crack open the Merlot and sink onto the sofa. Routine creates habits. As it would be exhausting to examine every passing thought, our brain develops a filter, until we perform well-worn routines on autopilot.
Do this night after night and our brain clumps those actions together into one task. You don’t actively consider whether you want that drink. Daily drinking is an easy habit to have because it feels rewarding — alcohol is full of sugar, so it triggers the release of endorphins and feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, and you associate it with switching off.
Happily, becoming aware of a habit is the first step to breaking it. If you repeatedly make a different but enjoyable choice — say, a long, hot shower — your brain feels rewarded and starts to form new neural connections, which encourage you to stick to this new behaviour.
KNOW WHAT TRIGGERS YOU TO HAVE A DRINK
If you want to stop drinking, you have to know what makes you start. Note down the times you crave a drink.
Helen suggests making a note of where you are and what you’re doing when you start to crave an alcoholic drink (file image)
Is it when watching Call The Midwife or when your in-laws visit? Spotting triggers can help you replace the reward you get from it with an activity you enjoy. Ask yourself:
- What time does it happen?
- What mood are you in?
- Where are you?
- Who are you with?
- What are you doing?
- What were you doing before?
- Why do you want a drink?
PREPARE AN ANSWER TO RESIST TEMPTATION
Have a script prepared, so you don’t have to make a decision when you have no willpower.
If colleagues invite me to the pub, I will say I’m meeting a friend. If my friend moans that I’m not drinking, I will lie that I must drive at 6am the next day. If you want to tell the truth, be confident. Say, ‘I’m happy with lemonade right now’.
PRACTISE PAUSE BUTTON THERAPY
Pause button therapy (PBT) was created by therapists Martin and Marion Shirran to help clients stop overeating. But it works with alcohol too. When temptation hits, imagine a remote control and mentally press pause.
She says associating drinking alcohol with something unpleasant such as aversion therapy with a rubber band can help to reduce the urge to drink (file image)
Now, visualise the results of the choice you’re considering (eg, a night on the prosecco). Then rewind and fast-forward again, envisaging a different choice (a night of pomegranate juice with fizzy water). Is it a better outcome? Rewind to the present and use that knowledge to decide what to do.
TRY AVERSION THERAPY WITH A RUBBER BAND
If you start to associate drinking alcohol with something unpleasant, your brain no longer feels rewarded by it and you are less likely to do it. A group of drinkers, given electric shocks in a trial, afterwards found the idea of alcohol repugnant.
You’ll be relieved to know that’s not necessary. Simply place a rubber band around your wrist and ping it whenever you feel the urge to drink.
YES, YOU DO HAVE THE WILLPOWER
Think you have no willpower? Unless you spend every day in a hedonistic haze, you do have willpower. It’s what gets you to work when you’d rather sleep in, it’s what makes you brush your teeth before bed when you’re tired. Saying ‘no’ to booze draws from the same source. The trick is not to use up all your willpower by lunchtime.
Whilst cravings may initially seem intense, researchers have discovered that they usually disappear after 15 minutes (file image)
In an average day, we spend up to four hours resisting temptation, and each choice drains our willpower reserves. Not eating a biscuit. Deciding what to wear. Willpower doesn’t just get depleted by ‘sensible’ decisions — each one we make taxes it.
So limit the decisions you make each day. For instance, don’t debate whether you’ll get to the gym daily — schedule sessions in your diary. Lay out your gym kit the night before.
Let your willpower recharge, find pleasure in what you’re doing (appreciate the joy of waking without a hangover) and tell yourself ‘you can do it’. This is more effective than saying ‘I’ can do it — researchers believe this is because it feels as though we are being encouraged by someone else.
As for cravings, they feel intense but only last for 15 minutes. Distract yourself. Studies at Exeter University found that a 15-minute walk stopped chocolate cravings — and it’s likely to work for alcohol too.
GIVE YOURSELF A ‘GOLDEN TICKET’
The official no-drinking challenges, such as Macmillan Cancer Support’s Go Sober for October or Alcohol Concern’s Dry January, offer ‘Golden Tickets’, meaning you can drink for an evening in exchange for an extra contribution to the charity you’re supporting — handy for a wedding or celebration.
Helen says ensuring your glass is empty before refilling can be useful to track how much you’re drinking (file image)
If you have one non-sober night, don’t think of it as a ‘failure’. It’s no big deal if you manage to stay off the sauce for the other 30 days. Enjoy yourself and remember, it’s the occasion that should be providing the fun, not what’s in your glass.
AND FINALLY… HOW TO DRINK SENSIBLY
The thought of eventually being able to order a cold glass of white has often sustained me for 30-odd days, but whenever I complete an alcohol-free month, I’m always surprised to realise that I don’t actually want a drink the next day.
I do at some point, and am happy to give in, but the break helps me create a healthier relationship with booze.
Here are some of the tactics I use to drink sensibly once the corkscrew comes out again…
FOUR MIND TRICKS TO GET YOU STARTED
1. The key to success is that you don’t feel deprived. First, find a soft drink you enjoy — elderflower cordial and soda works for me.
Next, choose your friends wisely this month. Avoid those who sulk if drinking alone. Never apologise for being ‘boring’ — you’re doing something positive.
2. If you drink to escape an emotion — such as to feel less shy at a party — try the tapping technique.
You tap parts of your body seven times, and the theory is it releases the energy associated with the emotion, and with it, the urge to drink.
3. Saying ‘No thanks, I don’t want that’ is empowering and makes it twice as likely you’ll resist than if you say ‘I can’t have that’, which suggests you’re missing out on something desirable.
For positive reinforcement, change your email password to something like ‘Nodrinks2day’. Or you can offer to drive — everyone is grateful, so no one nags.
4. Use this time as an opportunity to accomplish other things, be it an exercise goal (be specific — swim 20 lengths a day, for example) or immersing yourself in other non-drink- related pastimes (such as learning a language).
If you weaken, remind yourself: ‘It will all still be there in 31 days.’
ARE YOU A STARTER OR A STOPPER?
Some find it easy to switch to lemonade after two alcoholic drinks, others find it almost impossible. To limit alcohol intake, know your type.
Stoppers should decide early on how many drinks they’ll have, and swap to soft drinks when they reach that limit — or alternate between booze and alcohol-free drinks. Starters should take the opposite approach: begin with soft drinks and switch to alcohol later in the evening.
DILUTE, DILUTE, DILUTE (WITH ICE)
Some might regard watering down drinks as sacrilege, but it’s my saviour. It allows me to linger over dinner or in the pub and wake up the next morning hangover-free. Spritzers and lager shandies are invaluable, though my dilution of choice is ice — order a separate glass of it to add to your drink, and a goblet of white lasts twice as long.
PLACE YOUR GLASS ON A TABLE TO POUR LESS
If pouring from a bottle, don’t refill your glass until it’s empty. This makes it easier to keep track of how much you’re drinking. When replenishing, place your glass on the table — this prompts us to pour less than when we’re holding it, according to U.S. research. Extra points are gained if you alternate any refill with a glass of water.
Extracted from Quit Alcohol (For A Month): Rethink Your Drinking And Reset Your Habits In 28 Days, by Helen Foster, published by Vermilion, £7.99. To order a copy for £6.39 (offer valid to September 18), visit mailbookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15.