What I Learned From My Month of No Sugar, Alcohol and Caffeine

Natural Liver Detox Foods and Tips - How I Survived My Sugar-free Alcohol-Free, and Caffeine Free Cleanse! …like, that I really really love wine.

For those of you who were confused by the tequila that graced your computer screens last week, I kicked off my year of monthly wellness challenges with a detox-retox theme. BUT I didn’t actually eliminate alcohol or caffeine myself this January.

My choice to go off those two vices, along with added sugar, was something I did last March. The experiment, though incredibly difficult, was probably one of the most important things I’ve ever done for my health. Aside from gluten, it was the strictest I’ve been in overhauling my habits. And the positive results ended up inspiring this entire yearlong series.

So needless to say, I’ve been chomping at the bit for almost a year to give you the full run down on my detox experience.

The reason why I chose to do this challenge in the first place was because my skin was a disaster. Nothing seemed to be kicking my adult acne, and I’d gotten fed up with the crazy panoply of pills my dermatologist had put me on—none of which made any difference that lasted longer than a week. So eventually I found my way to a more integrated practitioner who suggested that there could be something wrong with my liver if toxins were getting evacuated via an exit ramp to my face.

I’ll talk a little bit more about the skin’s connection to the liver next month when we delve into Green Beauty. But as far as this experiment goes, you should know that giving my liver a rest really worked. I took a makeup free selfie every morning and by the end of the month, my skin was significantly better. And to this day, even though I’ve obviously been on the retox train ever since, my face has never returned to its previous state of chaos.

If the best part of my liver detox was seeing the physical improvements in my body, the biggest lesson in the retox was discovering the emotional source of my cravings.

I’ve broken down my experience by vice, from most difficult to least. I actually tried to do sugar again this month and was much less successful than last year, if the pint of black raspberry ice cream I accidentally ate last weekend is any indication.

Read on for verdict!

From one healthy hedonist to another,


Flourless Gluten-Free Cookies | Ginger Cookies | Easy Desserts 1. I missed sugar like crack.

To not eat added sugar is to not eat processed foods—which is NOT EASY.

Needless to say, I was relatively imperfect on this front, though I did try my best to limit packaged foods and avoid eating out at restaurants that I knew would have a very sugar-filled menu (think any Asian cuisine).

My biggest struggle at first was breakfast. But I remedied this by switching from sugary breakfast bars to homemade smoothies. I also started eating a lot more of the things in my fridge that are not usually consumed before noon. Things like leftover kale salad or Chicken Chile Verde at 8am.

More so than the physical cravings, which were real and scary, I realized that I use sweets (specifically chocolate bars and macaroons) to reward myself for either good behavior (the excellent freelance article I wrote) or unfair misery (the 5 vaccines I had to get in my arm for my Africa trip). I missed having something that felt like a treat, so found myself spending my French cookie money on massages at the local Korean nail salon instead.

I used to also feel like I needed something sweet to cleanse my palate after a meal. At the beginning of my detox, my dinners didn’t feel complete without a bite or two of dessert. But this was surprisingly one of the easiest habits to break by the end of the month.

Now I know that I don’t want chocolate as badly as the Cadbury bunny tells me I do. And that’s an empowering feeling, even if after success or trauma I still want to reach for a sweet treat as a gift to myself.

Less empowering was how difficult sugar was to avoid across the board, even with the best intentions. While alcohol and caffeine were easy to regulate, sugar was really hard to wrap my consciousness around, so I often found myself cheating…sometimes unknowingly.

Many researchers have likened the brain on sugar to the responses seen when it encounters hard drugs like cocaine. But I found that my relentless want of sugar was less chemical in nature and more due to another type of brainwashing—the fact that it’s literally everywhere. Sugar is tucked away in every crevice of a 100 item Chinese takeout menu. It’s on the screen of our TV’s, staring me down from the top of a swirling waterfall of Twix caramel. And it’s at the checkout counter of the gas station, the pharmacy, and often times even at the doctor’s office.

Looking at food labels and trying to regulate your sugar intake is an uphill battle, one that involves a lot of middle school math, which some of us expelled from our consciousness several decades ago. Because of this, as I strive for moderation going forward, I try not to drive myself crazy calculating sugar on the back of packages. But I do try to read the ingredient labels in the first place. And if I see 36 grams of sugar on the back of a Blueprint Juice, I now know that it’s probably not as good for me as I think it is.

I definitely still fall in a big way for desserts as a special treat, if last weekend’s ice cream is any indication. But I’ve significantly cut down on my daily habits and am generally a lot more aware of what I’m eating, like that the bag of Thai flavor Kettle potato chips I recently inhaled had three types of sugar in its ingredient list.

Natural Liver Detox Foods and Tips - How I Survived My Sugar-free Alcohol-Free, and Caffeine Free Cleanse! 2. Giving up alcohol made me feel lonely and isolated.

The biggest social experiment was of course the alcohol. And my issues turned out not to be what I expected.

I found that the worst part of not drinking was an intense feeling of isolation. As it turned out, sober dancing at weddings was a lot easier for me than being at a table with some of my favorite people while they enjoyed good wine and progressively started getting more fun and telling stupider jokes while I sat there drinking water as a wave of loser fatigue passed over me.

I went to two wonderful dinner parties with the best food and company a girl could ask for. So it’s a shame that not drinking made much of a difference at all. But it did. And I think it had less to do with getting drunk than feeling alienated from the group. This wasn’t a fear of missing out. I was missing out. And what I was missing involved Lambrusco and flourless chocolate cake.

By the end of both nights, I ended up craving quiet time with Charlie even more than a glass of wine. I needed to feel a sense of connection. But it was hard for him to hide his disappointment when I made him head home early instead of heading out on the town. Which just made me feel worse.

I definitely realized that I was losing more by not having alcohol in my life than I gained. As much as I was enjoying the hangover free mornings and the fact that I was now the cheapest date ever (more money for chia seeds and kefir in my smoothies!), this healthy hedonist needed to get back on the sauce. Finding moderation since though has been an even more daunting task (see my strategies for better boozing).

If there was any immediate impact of my alcohol detox it’s that I instantly became a wine snob. This is not something I would ordinarily want to be. But it wasn’t such a bad thing to embrace in the name of my health. I’ve tried to start drinking for taste. I sip slower, and if that first sip causes my nose to wrinkle, I casually put down my plastic cup of gallery opening $5 buck chuck and proceeded to socialize hands free.

I also noticed the times when I didn’t miss alcohol—all those weeknight catch-up dinners with friends where I didn’t want to spend $15 on a glass that tasted good when there were so many other delicious things to drink up at the table (for free!)—things like hearing about my friend’s new job offer and talking about the awkward toasts from weddings past.

In New York City, it’s amazing how quickly that requisite glass of wine at dinner can start to feel mandatory, even over a home cooked meal on a Monday. It made me wonder: how many people out there are drinking just because they feel they have to? Because they feel it’s easier than just saying say no? I thought that at 29, I had out grown peer pressure. But maybe we never really do.

Natural Liver Detox Foods and Tips - How I Survived My Sugar-free Alcohol-Free, and Caffeine Free Cleanse! + Healthy Detox Tea Recipe 3. Kicking caffeine was NBD.

I was shocked how little I missed caffeine by the end of the month. After the initial hump, it turned out to be no big deal. My energy levels were great, probably partially because of the absence of tequila shots and chocolate macaroon sugar rushes. But still, if I wasn’t hauling ass, it seemed silly to drink an obligatory cup of coffee.

With caffeine, I noticed that I was driven by ritual. I needed something to signal to my brain in the morning that the day had begun and it was time to stop dreaming about unicorns. But that thing could just as easily be warm lemon water.

I haven’t really gone back to drinking coffee in the morning. I try to stick with green tea or if I’m feeling perky, something herbal. Occasionally, I miss the taste of coffee, but that is easy enough to remedy as a treat. Ultimately, I want my dependency to remain an emotional one, without getting a headache or feeling lost if I don’t have fresh ground beans in close proximity.

Natural Liver Detox Foods and Tips - How I Survived My Sugar-free Alcohol-Free, and Caffeine Free Cleanse! ***

Did you try giving up any of these vices this month? Let me know how your experience stacked up to mine in the comments! And CHEERS to you for making it through. Now…have a drink!

Giveaway winners: Congrats to Merry Graham, Katie @ Beyond the Clothing, Karen D, Vunda V, and Heather for winning a bag full of Plum Vida! Get in touch via the contact page to claim your prize!

The Wellness Project is a year-long blog series (and upcoming memoir) about how to find the balance between health and hedonism. To find out more about the inspiration behind the project and to get the monthly theme schedule, click here. To read up on past experiments and get more tips from the trenches, click here.


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61 Responses to What I Learned From My Month of No Sugar, Alcohol and Caffeine

  1. Monica says:

    I am loving your wellness project! The timing was perfect for me – For the month of January I also gave up sugar, alcohol & caffeine – as well as dairy & gluten (already was veggie). I am right there with you on the “ritual” aspect of caffeine and sugar. During this “blizzard” I was dying to bake cookies! And a walk in the snow without a cappuccino wasn’t the same. But all worth it in the end with 3 days to go. Thank you for the advice & inspiration!

    • Wow Monica – go you!! Which ones do you think you’ll keep going forward? How did you find being a dairy, gluten-free veggie? that must be hard!

      • Monica says:

        It has! The hardest part, as you mention, is the social isolation. I’m not a person who can go to restaurants and not eat, so I’m very much looking forward to rejoining the rest of the world. I’m hoping this experience will help me to prioritize indulgent foods going forward. I chose 30 days because I’ve read that’s how long it takes to create a habit. So hopefully the warm water & lemon first thing is my new ritual, as you said! I especially appreciated your post about how to transition off the detox wagon. This is exactly what I have been worrying about the past couple of weeks. Thanks again for all your advice!

        • The transition is the hardest! I was kind of scared to take that first sip of wine. Good luck finding your new routine going forward. Report back! xo

          • Love how the time without alcohol wasn’t all about sacrifice – and instead it was the social element. Interesting how alcohol is such a social thing in so many settings.

            • Thank you for reading Bren! I’ve gone off alcohol periodically since this month, and still find it’s the FOMO that gets me over the physical effects or taste. Especially with wine. It feels like such an essential part of the meal’s experience if you’re dining with people who have selected something thoughtfully.

  2. Frankie says:

    I found a cup of licorice tea after meals took away that dessert craving. Or I reached for an apple. On the caffeine front, I found decaf green tea and black tea kind of fooled my body into thinking it was getting a lift, and the ritual remained the same. I didn’t give up alcohol. I gave it up for years once. So I know how it feels, and I got over the lonely and isolated thing. But like you, I just really like the taste of a good Pinot.

  3. Pam says:

    It was helpful hearing about your giving up alcohol and your decision not to keep it up. I’m trying to give it up permanently, or at least save it as a very occasional treat, and finding it very difficult! (I’m quite a bit older than you.) Have cut down on sugar and down to one cup of coffee daily with less trouble. I find brushing my teeth after dinner is a good signal that eating is over for today, and no need for dessert, although I also like a square of dark chocolate after dinner. I look forward to checking out your Wellness Project – thank you!

    • Thanks for sharing Pam! I too like a bit of dark chocolate after dinner. Try Mast Brothers! The darker of course, the less sugar and better for you. But I also find that it wires me a bit before bedtime. I do your teeth brushing trick sometimes too 🙂 Hope you’ll follow along for the rest of the year!

    • Janay says:

      It’s a plsaeure to find someone who can identify the issues so clearly

  4. I also tried to give up alcohol for 3 weeks this month. I lasted 11 days, and then I just really wanted a nice, relaxing glass of wine with my husband. Like you said, the social aspect was so difficult! I enjoyed the health benefits of not drinking (better sleep, flatter stomach, lower weight), but I think I prefer to have a couple of extra pounds on me and not be the girl who is more concerned about her physical health than with spending time bonding with friends (which is so important for physical health).

    And is that Mast Brothers chocolate in your picture? My brothers live in Brooklyn and always bring me back a 5 pack when they visit. It’s usually gone in about 2.5 weeks. 🙂

    • I couldn’t agree more Heather!! Social life is so important for wellness. And yes, it is Mast Bros!! SO GOOD. It’s really good quality and low sugar, so I don’t feel that guilty about it during normal months 🙂

  5. For sugar cravings – Fried or roasted ripe Plantain… cooked down till it caramelizes! Yum!

  6. Paula says:

    How about eating raw honey? I am thinking a better choice since it’s natural.

  7. Aris says:

    Very nice!

    I have been going through a similar journey over the past few of years and I wanted to point out that, for me, the dependency on coffee was reinforced by the sugar I put in it. When the sugar stopped, coffee became irrelevant very quickly.

    Also, if I eat more that one piece of fruit a day, if that, I go crazy and eat too many. I will have dextrose based sweets a couple of times a week (did you know that gelato is made using dextrose, not regular sugar?) and they don’t trigger the “Eat All The Cake” condition. Looks like fructose is what sets me off. (sucrose is 50/50 glucose/fructose, honey is all fructose)

    Also, taking out bread has relaxed my gut, gluten maybe?, and has also helped me eat more real foods instead of bread with things stuffed inside it. I might start eating it again if I work out how to make it with flour ground at home from grain.

    Finally, fat has been my weight loss friend. More fat, more weight loss. Who’d ever think?

    That’s all!
    Stay strong!!

    • Very interesting note about the coffee! I always used to drink mine black, so I hadn’t really thought of that. Honey actually has a lower percentage of fructose – it’s about 40/60. Especially raw honey is a great option as it has lots of other good nutritional value. Agave is the real fructose machine – 90%! Believe it or not, there is usually sugar in sandwich bread, so you might be feeling it there too. Even GF bread has sugar in it usually. So maybe find some great farmer’s market whole grain bread and try that if you want to keep it in your life – or make from scratch! xo

  8. Great timing to find your post!! I’m jut about to embark on my own month of cutting the vices, including sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Add to that fried foods and any form of diet soda (even the caffeine-free variety) and that will be my February. I have never been very successful in past attempts, but 28 days will go by relatively quickly, right? lol It will certainly be long enough to get over the initial cravings, and identify what triggers my indulges. Thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

  9. Braniff says:

    More people should give up alcohol for a month at a time. If they lose friends–then they should make new ones. Those who insist on getting hammered and getting their friends to drink booze are not worth being around anyway. Sobriety rocks!

    • It was definitely interesting to see how different friends reacted! I actually discovered that most people were more accepting than I could have imagined. Perhaps we are all just getting older. Many found it a relief that we didn’t have to have the requisite glass of wine just out of habit. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Tya says:

    I actually gave up sugar for 30 days twice – one in 2013 and once in 2014. I had a lot of cravings for it. But eventually those cravings went away and I was fine. I noticed a difference in my weight. As for my eczema (which is the real MVP), I didn’t notice any difference. I would love to figure out why my skin is such a mess when I drink water religiously and eat pretty healthy. I’m thinking of trying gluten free for 28 days which really scares me – talk about not being able to socialize – every dinner with friends and/or family will have bread or pasta. Whew!

    • Tya – I definitely would recommend trying an elimination diet for your skin. For sure no gluten or dairy as a trial. I used to eat pasta and bread at every meal and it’s totally doable now too with GF products. I promise these two are actually easier than the sugar. Let me know how it goes and there are tons of GF recipes on this site to help you through! xo

  11. Spencer says:

    Never have had a alcohol intake issue, do love a couple beers no and then, hey I live in Mexico, like my 3 – 4 cups of coffee with little or no sugar at all. Sugar? is a loud substance, and it can be painful too. I’m at the age now, 62, where if I eat too much at one time, mainly chocolate, 1/2 hour later my head hurts and I don’t feel good. If I eat some thing sugary before bed I wake up and my eyes are puffy and I feel a little bloated. I don’t eat a lot of processed food here so I don’t overdo it with the added sugars, very little. I have tapered my sugar in my coffee down a lot. I have always listen and payed attention to my body. It also cuts down on inflammation so some pains will diminish. It gets easier to cut out the sugar even though I LOVE IT, but how I feel and look is starting to take presidence. Just listen to yourself and you can find some answers….

  12. Steph says:

    This was such a great read, Phoebe! I loved seeing what was tough for you to give up and why. I can really relate about the alcohol-free isolation. Although I was (am still mostly) sober for pregnancy and nursing reasons, it was a really tough transition! And boyyyy did I miss wine. Luckily I can now have a glass here and there, and like you said, I appreciate it so much more now and will only drink the good stuff!

    • Thank you for reading Steph!! How is the wine down in Colombia?? Very curious. I hear that you don’t crave alcohol at all when you’re pregnant, so that helps. Did you feel that way?

  13. What a refreshing voice you are in this conversation, Phoebe! I am detoxing, daydreaming of retoxing as I type and you are a flavorful dose of inspiration.

    • wow Barbara! Thank you so much for reading. Good for you to take on your own wellness detox experiments! Cheers to a more balanced you going forward. Hope you’ll consider joining me for some of the other monthly challenges 🙂

  14. Allison K says:

    Hey Phoebe,

    Long time no speak! I am about to attempt the candida diet for a while and was on your site to see if I could tweak any of your recipes as I prepare for this (starting tomorrow), when I saw this post! If you don’t know much about it, candida diet is, as far as I can tell, basically strict paleo with no sugar, alcohol, caffeine or vinegar (other than apple cider vinegar). Anyway, this is going to be helpful, I think, as I go through withdrawal! Also, just a thought that probably a lot of your GF recipes already fit the bill, so you could always just tag preexisting things, if you chose to, and I bet you’d get a bunch of google hits from it, as the “candida recipes” world seems to be a relatively closed community with plenty of room for more creativity in it. At any rate, I’m curious to see the recipes you were making during this no sugar/alcohol/caffeine phase, as I bet most of them will be really helpful for me. I’m going to keep prowling around and see what I find. Thanks for always having great stuff. 🙂


    • Hey lady! Great to hear from you! Sorry to hear you’re having candida issues – I hope the diet helps! Great idea about tagging the recipes. Going to add that to my to do list. Check out the beet salad from this week 🙂 xo

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  24. I just stumbled across your blog tonight & love this post! Thank you for sharing. It is very inspiring & HONEST! This is my first day of no alcohol or caffeine, I never thought about sugar though! And I was very worried about the social aspect as well, but the positive benefits far outweigh the bad in the end.

    I hope I can make it 30 days. It’s HARDER then I thought. 🙂 I’ll definitely keep checking back on your blog for inspiration & your articles though to keep me going.

    xoxo Helena

    • Helena! I’m so happy you found me. That’s so amazing you are giving alcohol a little break. It’s so hard, but at least you’ll learn some things about yourself in the process, even if you end up giving in along the way. I hope you’ll try out some other wellness experiments – do keep following along, and please let me know how the detox went for you! xo

  25. Laura says:

    Hello, I found this site of yours today and want to make contact. I am now 60y/o In 2012 i was diagnosed with MS, Ciliac,-had a mesenteric aneurism discovered and corrected…NASH-which is Non-Alcoholic Cirrhosis, from a Fatty Liver, Beginning of Diabetes 2, I also have sleep apnea and RLS. Yes the shit hit the Fan..I am still here and of course with all of this I immediately gave up bread, noodles, cakes, cookies, flour, also fruit, which gave me migraines, –have to watch carbs..due to the diab 2…
    So, eating I related to u saying u ate the chicken from the night before for breakfast…My Cholesterol the bad kind is a little bit high a few points–so now have to eliminate too many eggs and foods wi cholesterol…And I Never Drink. Sad but your brave comments about how not drinking is being left out…..was never a big drinker.. maybe 5 drinks a year..now 1 a year would be nice..but wont……and smoothies forget it sooo much sugar–I cringe at the ones Pioneer women makes with soooo much sugar foods — I had my gallbladder out at 21 so my liver was the main organ everything went thru…Now its like I found it sad how 46% of people do have a Fatty Liver and are unaware..Not everyone will get NASH but if people knew –I feel its important for people to know…everything we put into our mouth effect our liver and pancreous… So, my dear can you or your reader embrace my situation with some kind of words of encouragement…I am now facing a 3cm nodule on my thyroid…and a sonogram guided…needle biopsy -Kindest regards, L

    • Hi Laura,

      Thank you for sharing your struggles. It’s always amazing to hear from others who have been through the ringer with health issues. I’m sorry yours has been such a difficult journey. I wish you the best of luck on the sonogram. Keeping my fingers crossed for you. Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to read about my story.


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  27. Cyndy says:

    Hi Laura well I am going to turn 60 years old this December 2015 and I am a regular red wine drinker a couple glasses every night I work the swing shift in a casino so I have odd hours which the wine helps me get to sleep usually around 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning then I am up around 8:30 or 9 Anna have an energy drink I have my favorite brand which is sugar free and has a lot of herbs and b12 and b5, b3. Sometimes I’ll have another energy drink before I go to work on the weekends for sure. I eat a lot of processed foods Weight Watchers Lean Cuisine I do watch my weight I used to work out at least 3 – 5 days a week but when I started drinking all the wine I tended not to want to get up in the morning and workout so I’ve decided to try some type of a detox since it will be about 30 days before my birthday and I found your site so thanks for the information I’m going to give it 100% i just want to see if I can and how it makes me feel to be clean and healthy. Say a prayer for me

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  33. Matt says:

    I love your post. I am 3 weeks into something similar and feel pretty amazing. The social life / drinking thing is a challenge. I am thinking of creative ways to fake it. But doing that elucidates the peer pressure I am feeling at times. The rebel in me wants to fight that cultural norm. I once heard a boss say: “I’d never trust someone I couldn’t have a drink with”. That’s sad. That made me just want to toast with water purpose 🙂

    • I love this Matt!! Embrace your water purpose toasts! Since I first did this detox, I’ve adopted a 1 dry week a month policy. It’s actually really helped with the peer pressure. The more I do it, the easier it gets. And it helps break down those sad cultural conceptions that are still lodged somewhere in my subconscious. Thanks so much for reading and I’m glad that you’re feeling amazing!! xo

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  36. Nikki says:

    Hi, this is just the article I needed, thank you. My skin has recently become the worst its ever been and a week ago I decided to cut out the 3 main culprits you talk about in your article, as my own research have linked the forehead ache to my liver and intestines. After years of overload from daily sugar, coffee and not so much alcohol as I haven’t drank much of late; but the sugar addiction is one I’ve had since childhood started to take its toll. Knowing that you started for the same reason because of your skin has given my guidance on my path on day 6; so tomorrow as I sit in the office crunching on a carrot stick and drinking hot water I know it will get better, my skin is still kicking out some poison but I’m sure that pass in time.

    Namaste X

    • Ah Nikki, I’ve been there. I’m sorry you’re going through it. But there is hope! I haven’t gotten a flare up of my Perioral Dermatitis since I did this detox. Occasionally my skin flares up when my diet is sub par (ehem, like during Thanksgiving week in the states), but at least I always know what I need to do to reset. The combo of these three really makes all the difference. Try to get some rest, take epsom salt baths and just treat the break as a much needed period of self care. Good luck! xoxox

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