Nearly one-third of American adults drink excessively. Many of these drinkers eventually will decide that alcohol is harming their health and happiness and try to quit or at least cut way back. Knowing these surprising facts could improve your odds of succeeding…
If you have an alcohol problem, you have a sugar problem, too. Alcohol is basically fermented sugar. So when heavy drinkers quit drinking, their bodies don’t just crave alcohol…they also crave the large quantities of sugar that they’re used to consuming.
What to do: Giving up drinking is challenge enough—do not force yourself to give up sugar at the same time. For at least your first month of your sobriety, keep your blood sugar levels up by eating whenever you feel hungry—at least once every five hours…never skipping a meal, especially breakfast…and consuming plenty of fruit, which satiates cravings for sugar, without resorting to unhealthy treats such as candy.
Willpower alone is never enough to overcome excessive drinking. People who have tried to quit drinking without success in the past often conclude that they lack sufficient willpower to remain sober. In truth, no one has enough willpower to permanently stop doing something they very much want to do. The secret to giving up alcohol is to find a way to decrease your desire to drink so that you are not as dependent on willpower to quit.
What to do: Whenever you feel the urge to drink, imagine what your life will be like in five or 10 years if you continue drinking heavily, versus what it could be like if you stop. For example, consider…
• How healthy you could be if you quit, versus how unhealthy you could be if you continue.
• How much you would accomplish if you were always sober, versus all the hours you would have wasted drinking or being drunk.
• How much money you could have saved, versus how much you would have spent on alcohol.
• How respected you could be, versus the embarrassments you might have endured with continued heavy drinking—such as behaving like a buffoon at parties.
Drinkers tend to associate drinking with pleasure and quitting with pain—that’s why it takes willpower to quit. Reflecting on the long-term pain of drinking and long-term pleasure of stopping helps reverse this association, so sobriety no longer feels like an endless struggle against desire.
Giving up drinking can lead to chemically induced feelings of depression. The brains of heavy drinkers often produce the “positive thinking” neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin only when alcohol is in the bloodstream. When these people suddenly stop drinking (or cut way back on their alcohol intake), the loss of these upbeat mood-triggering neurochemicals leaves them feeling depressed. Some inevitably conclude that they need alcohol to be happy and start drinking again.
What to do: Your brain eventually will start producing dopamine and serotonin without alcohol again, but it could take as long as 90 days (or in rare cases, even longer). For at least the first three months of sobriety, regularly consume foods that contain omega-3 fats, such as wild-caught salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies and mackerel—these have been shown to significantly raise dopamine levels.
Also consume foods that contain gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), such as cherry tomatoes, shrimp and bananas —these can beneficially alter the brain’s serotonin balance. Taking dietary supplements containing GABA or omega-3 could help, too. But speak to your doctor before taking supplements.
You could end up feeling mentally foggy. People assume that they will feel sharper when they stop drinking, and for light drinkers and weekend bingers, this usually is true. But when heavy daily drinkers first quit, they often find their thinking becoming foggier. This stems from the chemical changes occurring in the brain as it readjusts to life without alcohol, and it generally lasts several weeks.
What to do: Exercising regularly and drinking plenty of water during this foggy brain period seems to help. Some people find that listening to or playing music helps focus the mind during this period, too.
You don’t have to hit rock bottom to quit. There is a common misconception that drinkers cannot successfully give up drinking until they “hit bottom,” which might involve going on a prolonged bender…losing a job or spouse because of drinking…or getting arrested for drunk driving. In truth, the only reason heavy drinkers tend not to quit until they “hit bottom” is that until then they generally are not willing to admit that they have a serious drinking problem.
What to do: Stop searching for reasons why your drinking is not a problem, and instead honestly consider the question, Would my life be better without alcohol? If you answer yes, then you have a problem and should quit.
Quitting drinking earns you free time—but that time could be dangerous to your sobriety. Heavy drinkers who quit often are amazed by how much more time they suddenly have. Not only does quitting free up the hours they previously spent drinking, it frees up the hours they previously spent too drunk to do anything productive—and the hours they spent sleeping off hangovers.
What to do: Find constructive and/or enjoyable things to fill this newfound time. Boredom is a sobriety killer—former drinkers sometimes return to the bottle simply because they can’t think of anything else to do.
If you don’t have projects and hobbies in mind, try getting exercise outdoors…learning to play a musical instrument…or starting a home-improvement project.
Or you can volunteer with nonprofits…take adult-education classes…or use websites such as MeetUp.com to find nonalcohol-related gatherings.
Activities that involve spending time with people who are not drinking are best. Excessive drinking often is at some level a substitute for love and human connection. If people you love insist on getting intoxicated when you’re together, it’s important to not spend time with them when they’re drunk. Ultimately, if they don’t change, they are going to want you to drink, so spending time with them while they are intoxicated can be risky. Without coming across as judgmental or resentful, explain that you love them but that you need to make this change for your own well-being.
Trick to Overcome Cravings
Overcoming cravings to drink could be as simple as tapping your fingers. Gently tapping your fingers on certain spots on your body can help control alcohol cravings (other cravings, too). That might sound unlikely, but decades of research confirms that this really does work for most people. One study found that it can reduce cravings by an astonishing 83%.
How is that possible? Experiencing cravings makes people feel stressed, which causes the body to release stress hormones. Gentle tapping in certain spots encourages the body to instead release dopamine and serotonin, the positive-feeling neurotransmitters discussed above.
What to do: When you feel like you need a drink, use your index and middle fingers to gently tap five to seven times on each of the following eight spots
• The top of your head
• One of your eyebrows
• Just beyond the outer corner of one of your eyes
• Just under one of your eyes
• Just under your nose
• On your chin
• On your collarbone
• In one of your armpits.
Not coincidentally, these are among the spots that acupuncturists have been targeting with their needles for thousands of years. (For more details, search “EFT Tapping Therapy” on YouTube.)