For this month’s experiments in healthy hedonism I’m focusing on whether life without alcohol, caffeine and sugar is a life worth living.
Eliminating these three liver foes is something that I already tackled last year during my wellness explorations. I won’t give you my full verdict now—I want to give you a chance to try this type of detox for yourself before I weight in. But I will say that it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was also one of the only things I’ve done so far, aside from eliminating gluten, that had a huge, immediate impact on my health.
These days the idea of detox has become synonymous with the more abstract word “cleanse.” You see it thrown around all sorts of ways this time of year as people hunker down with a new set of healthy habits. But for the purpose of my exercise, the idea of detox is really about dedicating a month to our central detoxifier: the liver.
Helping to improve the integrity of our second largest organ has a host of other health benefits, including more efficient digestion, weight loss, and better skin. For more information on how it works and what you can do to make it your new BFF, my acupuncturist Heidi wrote this amazing article on spring cleaning your liver that largely informed my practice.
If giving up all three for 30 days sounds incredibly daunting, try one or two. You can also reduce the time period. But you may find it easier to ditch them as a trio, since they tend to feed each other as bad habits. Without alcohol, you’re automatically getting rid of all that fructose-laden margarita mix. And without the inevitable hangover, you’re less likely to need a giant vat of coffee to get out of bed in the morning. Also, with your blood sugar in check, you won’t need that post-lunch slump pick-me-up.
I’ll be sharing more tips this month from my research on and experience with detox, but first, here are some ground rules and inspiration if you want to try it out for yourself.
Why: Alcohol is perhaps the most well known toxin that our liver battles on a regular basis. But it’s not necessarily the worst one, as many think it is. The liver processes everything—both emotionally and physically—that you put in your body. It treats Stoli the same as it does stress and steroids. But the issue with alcohol is really about quantity. If you’re flooding your insides with vodka sodas, your liver can easily become too distracted from the 5,000 other jobs it has to do. At night, one of those major jobs is to clean your blood, which makes nighttime boozing all the more problematic.
What: Go cold turkey on this one. Unless you’re a legitimate alcoholic (in which case, you should probably be pursuing a different type of program), you shouldn’t experience any withdrawal.
How: This time of year it’s more socially acceptable to go off the sauce for a little while. I did my detox during lent for that same helpful construct. But if your friends are prone to peer pressure, you can always say you’re on antibiotics. Just make up a good illness so that people still want to touch, kiss, or share food with you.
Awareness: I’d imagine most of you are not going to stop drinking completely after this month. So as an important part of finding that middle ground between health and hedonism going forward, try to pay attention to what you’re really craving when you’re craving a drink. Is it the taste of red wine? A feeling of connection? The need to let loose? Do you experience social anxiety or alienation without liquid courage? Ask yourself these questions and really explore what makes giving up alcohol harder or easier for you and which situations bring out these emotions.
Why: Sugar seems to be the new gluten. Every day I am bombarded with a new fun fact about why it’s is going to kill me in my sleep. But considering Americans consume close to their body weight in sugar each year (on average, 130 pounds), and the fact that one soda a day increases a child’s chance of obesity by 60 percent, there’s definitely some truth to the harmful effects it can have on the body.
The liver in particular is responsible for tag teaming with your pancreas to control your body’s blood sugar. When levels are too high, the pancreas signals to your liver (by using the blood’s favorite gang sign, insulin) that it needs to convert the excess fructose into glycogen. When there’s too much glycogen, as there usually is unless you’re habitually in a state of marathon training, the glycogen then gets converted into fat. You can be a very skinny person and still have a very fatty liver.
What: I gave up all added sugar but kept whole fruit in my diet. The problem is that 80 percent of all packaged food contains added sugar, so it’s a tricky beast to dodge.
How: To really quit sugar completely means eating the majority of your meals at home and avoiding premade sauces, condiments, and seasonings. Even sandwich bread contains added sugar!
I certainly did not do a perfect job on this task. But one major shift I made was to start making smoothies for breakfast, which is a landmine meal for sugar. Here’s more on that part of my morning routine.
For other meals, I tried to cook for myself and eat as cleanly as possible. If you’re dining out, this of course gets harder. But some cuisines are worse than others. BBQ and Asian menus contain tons of sugar, Mexican and Indian not as much.
One important note: juice does not equal whole fruit! Save your money from the ‘All Greens’ at Liquiteria and spend it on real greens. Without fiber, all those natural sugars in beets, carrots, apples and other sweet fruit and veg will hit your blood stream like a giant sugar bomb. Choose smoothies instead or make sure to eat something while you drink your green juice instead of consuming it as a meal or snack.
Awareness: I experienced serious sugar headaches for the first week, so be prepared for that. But once you’re past that hurdle, you may end up feeling better than you ever have. Notice what the omission adds to your life and when you’re feeling deprived and yourself why.
Why: In addition to making your digestive system lazy, coffee in particular (even decaf) affects how your liver processes hormones. Because of it’s own phyto-hormones, coffee competes for attention against the other waste products your liver is trying to process. When coffee becomes the apple of your liver’s eye, all that unused testosterone, estrogen, and adrenaline that was supposed to get flushed instead gets sent into circulation to torment your endocrine system like a pack of horny teenagers. Caffeine itself is a drug and processed as such. Quitting all caffeine is also a great way to give your adrenals a reset and get you back into a better sleep pattern, which is very helpful for giving your liver the time it needs to work at night.
What: I read that it wasn’t wise to go cold turkey on caffeine, so I decided to allow myself the first week to downgrade my morning infusion to a single cup of Yerba Mate, Green Tea, or Runa, which is made from an indigenous Amazonian plant that contains twice the antioxidants of green tea.
How: After the tea period was over, I replaced my morning beverage with warm lemon water. This is a major detoxifier and very alkalizing–probably something worth integrating into your morning routine regardless of these other omissions.
Awareness: Coffee is a diuretic, and I’d go out on a limb and say that half of its merry morning drinkers are relying on it as much for intestinal as mental stimulation. If you’re in this camp, there are better ways to regulate your digestion. We’ll talk about some of those later in the year. But first, trust that making your intestines autonomous is a step in the right direction. If your main driver is ritual, see what replacing the contents of your mug with something else (like lemon water) does for your morning routine. Here are more tips on creating an herbal tea ritual.
Report back in the comments section if you end up giving any of these experiments a try! I’m going to do sugar again this month. It was harder for me than alcohol, believe it or not, but also probably the worst offender of the three. I’ll be sharing my verdict on the detox at the end of the month. In the meantime, tune in next week for an equally important topic: how to have a healthier retox period!
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. For a sample list of upcoming experiments, see my article 12 Monthly Wellness Challenges For the Year Ahead on Mind Body Green. To read up on past experiments and get more tips from the trenches, click here.