Why Does The January Detox Make Me Feel So Bad? (Telegraph, January 2015)

If I were a musician, I might call it the detox blues.

I woke up this morning with a gnawing pain behind the eyes. Just as I did yesterday. And the day before.

Hangover? No, I have been booze-free for over a week. Not a drop of alcohol has passed my lips for eight days.

Aren’t I supposed to feel better by now? Shouldn’t feeling dreadful in the mornings be a thing of the past? Why does my head still feel like it’s stuffed with wire wool retrieved from an old truck’s exhaust pipe?

It’s been like this, on and off, since I started my ‘detox’ regime. For the first couple of nights, it took hours to get to sleep, and by the time I finally drifted off, the sheets were soaked with sweat.

Meanwhile, after getting out of the wrong side of the bed (having turned top to tail in order to escape the sweat pool), I was in a mood to match, and instantly instigated a row about shared use of a phone charger with my similarly irritable partner, who is also decrying the drink and trying to give up smoking to boot.

I might have given it all up as a bad job and turned straight back to my old friend the bottle, but we have an agreement.

 

Unlike many New Year detox plans, it wasn’t really planned at all. My organs had been groaning for mercy after a particularly well-lubricated New Year turned into a very wet first weekend of January, and I had the following conversation with my girlfriend one groggy morning.

“Oh gawd, I feel awful. This has got to stop,” I told her. “As of next week, I’m not drinking any more…”

“Really?” she said.

“…any more than the average touring Irish folk band! Arf!”

She laughed politely at my brilliant and entirely original joke, but then said something serious.

“Actually I think we should. Just for a couple of weeks. To let our bodies recover.”

To my surprise, and mild sense of pride, we’ve so far managed just over a week off, from a scheduled two weeks off the sauce. A modest ambition, perhaps, but it’s already proving tough, mainly because ‘recovery’ isn’t feeling as good as expected. My best behaviour has not been rewarded. The child in me wants to sulk, stamp his feet and shout “s’not fair!”

Yet this experience tallies with medical evidence. Looking up symptoms of alcohol withdrawal online, it mentions symptoms not a million miles from ours. Insomnia. Sweats. Generally feeling rotten. That’s an experience also backed up by Andy McIntyre, whose book Last Orders – A Drinker’s Guide To Sobriety records a whole year the once heavy drinker spent foreswearing the demon drink.

“The first couple of days, I found I just couldn’t sleep, and when I looked into the medical reasons for that, it’s mainly because my body was so used to having the depressant of alcohol on board.”

As for the sweats, that’s a little more complicated.

“After an intense bout of boozing you’re taking on two things,” he says. “Alcohol and sugar. And when you quit, you quickly notice the sweating. But it’s largely a myth that says it’s your body cleansing itself. The majority is withdrawal symptoms from processed sugar and alcohol. Your body is going into a mild form of shock.”

A more medically qualified view broadly backs up his anecdotal evidence. According to Warwick University’s Dr Thomas Barber, who has studied the effects of alcohol on obesity, people often wildly underestimate the calorific and sugar content of alcohol, and how the body comes to rely on it.

“The body is very good at redressing deficiencies it detects,” he says, “and we’re biologically programmed to maintain bodyweight to avoid the harmful effects of starvation, which historically has been the biggest evolutionary threat to most species. When you give up after a long period of heavy drinking, you’re suddenly not getting as many calories or sugar into your system, and alarm bells are ringing in your body, which is one reason why you don’t feel so good. You’re also craving sugar to replace what you’ve lost from the alcohol.”

Ah yes, that’ll be why we’ve both found ourselves regularly raiding the cupboard for chocolate and biscuits, and feeling an irresistible urge to stock up on Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference Sticky Toffee Puddings. McIntyre had much the same experience.

““I never used to eat chocolate before I quit, but I found myself constantly getting cravings,” he says.

As for the non-drinking hangovers, he also knows where we’re coming from.

“Most hangovers are because of dehydration, and although alcohol is a diuretic that makes you more dehydrated, if you give up booze but don’t drink as much other liquid to replace it, you’ll still be dehydrated.”

In my case, I realised that I’d been in the habit of drinking a couple of pints of water before bed every night to prevent potential dehydration from booze, and now I’m not drinking, I assumed that wasn’t necessary. “Wrong!” cries my body each morning.

But ultimately, McIntyre concludes that I’m just a typical 21st century man: impatient.

“Our culture is obsessed with the easy fix,” he says. “The five or ten-day detox diet after which everything will be rosy. But in my case I’d been drinking heavily for 20 years so it’s ridiculous to expect to right that after five days.”

I didn’t think I’d been drinking that heavily. But once you actually count your drinks, and the units involved, you realise you’re kidding yourself. Particularly over Christmas and new year when you’re boozing at home with generous measures and no work to get up for in the morning.

A couple of glasses of cava in the morning. A wee tipple at lunch. Red wine opened mid-afternoon. Gin o’clock comes round soon enough, then it’s onto the white wine on the sofa in front of the telly, out to the pub to get a couple of pints in before last orders, back home to finish off the bubbly, and – oh yeah, there’s those Christmas liqueurs we got given. Fancy a night cap?

“Studies have shown that people’s perception of the units they consume is inaccurate,” Dr Barber points out. “Government guidelines talk about two units being a glass of wine, but some people are drinking enormous glasses, and home measures can be a lot more than pub measures. It’s just the same with food ­– people don’t realize how much they’re actually taking on board.”

So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that going cold turkey isn’t making us feel too good in the short term.

The good news is, according to McIntyre, that better times are just around the corner…

“After a couple of weeks, when your body starts to adjust and heal itself, you’ll reach what Alcoholics Anonymous call the ‘Pink Cloud’ period.

“You’ll think ‘Wow, I feel great! Why didn’t I do this before?!’”

“You might also find out the truth of that classic George Best quote: ‘You don’t know how many hours there are in a day until you stop drinking.’ You’re so much more productive.”

That can last a couple of months, but then the cloud bursts and you get a bit down because the problems that may have led you to drink are still there and not drinking is just normal now. That’s what I found difficult when I did a year off. March was really hard.”

I wasn’t planning to abstain long enough to find out. But now I’m on the wagon, maybe I’ll stick around a while. After all, it’d be a shame to make all this effort then miss out on the good stuff, right?

So I’ll still say no to the booze for now, and patiently await the rewards. If you’re buying, mine’s a pink cloud.

Johnny Sharp

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