100 days no alcohol experiment – why it turned out more relevant than I expected

100 days no alcohol experiment – why it turned out more relevant than I expected
5 September 2018

Much as I always loved to have a tipple, I recently came to a rather startling conclusion. If alcohol wasn’t already on the market as a legal drink, it would never manage to get approval from today’s regulatory authorities.

I am saying this after spending several months educating myself about alcohol – while trying to stay away from the very subject of my research. During this period, I went through a stack of books (three of which I reveal and recommend at the end of this article), countless scientific and general-interest articles, as well as websites of relevant organisations from around the world.

It also turned out to be rather relevant for my work as an entrepreneur and how I manage to squeeze frequent world-travelling, my career, and my social life into those short 24h we are given every day and get the most joy out of it all. It’s quite an important issue for the mindset with which you approach life, which I only realised after having spent a fair bit of time on analysing the issue.

What led me to this self-experiment

I had been a life-long social drinker, but realised during a recent period of changing my diet (my corresponding blog post about this experience has turned into the most downloaded piece of writing on this website – by a multiple!) that I hardly knew anything about the substance that in the Western world has become an elixir almost inseparable from our lives.

Hand on heart, who of us really has a comprehensive idea of why we drink and what effect it has on us? When it comes to alcohol – the drink that is woven so deeply into our lives and which can have profound effects on us or even kill us – most of us are guided by a superficial understanding at best.

It’s easy to figure out why we are so oblivious. No one teaches you about it to any level of detail in school. Media reporting about alcohol is something we are all regularly exposed to, but it is confusing at best:

  • One day, we are told by major publications we trust that “a drink a day is good for you.”
  • The next day, equally impressive scientific studies written about in equally impressive newspapers tell us “there is no safe level for alcohol consumption.”

Which one now?

Hand on heart, who of us really has a comprehensive idea of why we drink and what effect it has on us?

There is no shortage of blog articles from people who gave up on drink for some time or even for good. However, being told that my sleep will improve and that my waistline will shrink if I stop or reduce drinking is too general to satiate my desire to properly educate myself about alcohol and the place it has in my life.

I found the information that reaches us about alcohol in a casual way to be deeply unsatisfying. The only alternative was to research it by myself and based on my personal circumstances and priorities.

A trip to the Middle East got me off to an expectedly good start

My opportunity to embark on a personal quest for knowledge about drinking arrived in, of all places, alcohol-free Saudi Arabia.

On the final day of a 14-day trip across the hermit kingdom, I looked at my alcohol-free “malt drink” and contemplated how – somewhat strangely – I had not missed drinking alcohol at all during my time there.

Despite usually enjoying drinking once or twice a day because of social reasons or to relax, I had genuinely not experienced any form of craving for a drink. Besides that, I had a most enjoyable time there, including social gatherings where attendees had fun and bantered without the lubricating effect of alcohol (all the more commendable during one particular social group where the host insisted on demonstrating his 1942 German rifle to me).

My experience in Saudi Arabia led me to wonder if I had previously given alcohol way too much credit for enhancing my life?

With 14 off-days down already, I spotted my opportunity to get this off to a good start.

Here is what I posted on my Facebook profile there and then:

Facebook post no alcohol

By alerting my friends to the experiment, I ensured that there wouldn’t be a way out for me. Also, I tested how the subject would resonate with my audience. 53 ‘likes’ made this a reasonably popular post among my personal friends, telling me that there were others who were as eager to learn about the subject than I was.

My experience in Saudi Arabia led me to wonder if I had previously given alcohol way too much credit for enhancing my life?

The goalposts of my experiment were well thought out, too:

  • 100 days would put me nicely above the “Dry January” and “Sober October” crowd, of whom I see >50% failing every year and who I deem a movement that has become more about competitive virtue-signalling than sustainable change or self-improvement.
  • I wanted the period to be extended enough to give me the necessary time to read multiple – potentially, dozens – of books and trawl the web for research.
  • By combining the study of the subject with not drinking, I figured there’d be one or the other surprise realisation that one could not possibly plan for and which would only emerge on the back of courageous self-experimentation.

So began my mission, and I was quickly getting some of those surprises that I had figured would inevitably form part of the journey.

A few immediate learnings

Scrolling through the available literature and picking up the more popular books, I was disappointed and even somewhat shocked to learn that much of the bestselling books about the subject deal with alcohol from the perspective of real alcoholics.

“The unexpected joy of being sober” is marked as “Bestseller” on Amazon, the platform I use to research books. Picking up a copy in a bookshop in Notting Hill, who I support because I prefer actual bookshops over high street-destroying Amazon, the well-familiar lady at the checkout told me: “Oh, this book is really popular with our clients! I have sold so many of them already.”

Really? The book was about a middle-class English woman who had such a problem with alcohol that she regularly ended up in a prison cell!

As a disclaimer, I have never had any issues with addiction. My personal journey of drinking started with an increased level of social drinking from my mid-20s onwards; to a somewhat excessive level of social drinking during a 3.5 year stint of living on a remote tropical island where boozing in the true sense of the word was one of the few things to do and an escape from an insanely stressful job; back to a more level-headed form of social drinking in my early 40s. I never smoke cigarettes, I don’t smoke weed, and I have never taken any other drugs (as in, never).

I started to realise why it is that a large part of our society makes the assumption that as soon as you talk about alcohol and wanting to reduce how much you consume of it, it means that you must have a problem.

Another surprise learning was the level of hostility that I found myself on the receiving end of when opting out of drinking at social gatherings. About half of the time it was no big deal. The other half of the time I could sense my hosts or other guests genuinely abhorring my decision not to drink. These were genuinely negative, hostile vibes. I hadn’t been prepared for that, and it’s a subject I will refer back to later as I learned that this social pressure is the crux of all matter when it comes to stop drinking.

I started to realise why it is that a large part of our society makes the assumption that as soon as you talk about alcohol and wanting to reduce how much you consume of it, it means that you must have a problem.

On a brighter note, I also started to pick up what I like to call “fun facts.” Somewhat random, but always entertaining, often perturbing, and usually little-known morsels of knowledge that, if anything, you can throw around at dinner parties to appear terrifically smart. Here are some of the good ones:

  • 2 billion people drink, but 5 billion people don’t drink.
  • Half of all murders are committed under the influence of alcohol, and half of all murder victims are also under the influence.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks alcohol as a Class One carcinogen, alongside the likes of asbestos, mustard gas, and plutonium.

Entertaining factoids aside, I did learn a lot about the science behind alcohol, too. The conclusions based on what I’ve learned during the past few months may well be entirely different from what you’d expect me to have come up with. Rest assured, I will neither try to astound you with writings about my enhanced quality of my sleep nor will I lecture you about the effect of alcohol on our waistlines.

What I make of the (confusing) science about alcohol

The alcohol industry has created a thousand different ways for us to consume alcohol.

Add to it the fact that each human being is different. One person has pre-existing conditions that will make the effect that alcohol has on them worse. Others, magically, will have the impact of alcohol glide right off them (Winston Churchill comes to mind, although there may also be some myth-making involved).

Many effects of alcohol-consumption can only be observed after years or decades, and some results are impossible to tell apart from other potential causes.

It is at this point that the problem with talking about the science behind alcohol starts to come into play. It’s very complicated and “it all depends.”

Because of the complexity of these different factors, analysing the effects of alcohol consumption is akin to a jigsaw puzzle with tens of thousands of pieces spread across different boxes stored in different rooms. You could spend your life on it (as some do), and still never get to a definite answer.

Though there are, after all, a few undeniable truths.

1. Alcohol-related research is in its infancy

The science around how alcohol affects the human body is still nascent. That’s fair to say because as of now, no one can give you definitive answers what chemical, physical, physiological, and psychological effects alcohol has on human beings, both immediately and on a cumulative basis over years or decades. There are good reasons why the world continues to spend hundreds of millions, billions even, on further research into what alcohol does to us. These relationships are so complex that we may never have clear answers. The body of science on alcohol has a lot further to go and in the meantime, won’t be able to give us definitive answers.

2. The science is influenced by a plethora of (concealed) conflicts of interest

A significant percentage of the research that is produced on alcohol is in some shape or form influenced by the drinks industry, i.e. it’s marketing disguised as science.

A significant case emerged in Spring 2018 when the New York Times uncovered some alarming ties between the alcohol industry and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a US-government entity that operates the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. As the NYT uncovered, the scientists in charge of the trial pitched to alcohol industry executives that if they helped to fund the trial, it would “represent a unique opportunity to show that moderate consumption is safe and lowers risk of common diseases.” As a result of these meetings, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Diageo, Heineken, Pernod Ricard and Carlsberg chipped in $67.5m of the total of $100m needed to fund the trial. Guess who was the project’s “majority shareholder” of sorts?

Much of the media seems to either turn a blind eye to these affairs, or they simply lack the expertise and capacity to take as critical a view of these matters as the Fourth Estate should. Five drinks firms – Anheuser-Busch, Diageo, Heineken, Pernod Ricard, and Suntory – were included in the 2016 list of the world’s 100 biggest advertisers.

Government plays its part in this, too. E.g., in 2009, a team of British scientists concluded alcohol was the no. 1 drug to target if the government was serious about wanting to reduce the harm to society from drugs. The government’s chief drug advisor, Professor David Nutt, was asked to resign the day after putting his group’s findings forward. Why may they have done that? According to a 2015 investigation by the Institute of Economic Affairs, alcohol taxes paid to the UK government amounted to £10bn ($13bn) that year. The tax provided billions of unrestricted cash to the Treasury.

Will future generations look back on our understanding of alcohol the same way that we now look back – and laugh about – the 1960s’ and 1970s’ knowledge of tobacco?

Those old enough to remember will know how Big Tobacco spend oodles of money on establishing “research centres” that were aimed at disputing science that tied smoking to lung cancer. The same research centres instead spewed out research aimed at showing the benefits of smoking, such as reducing stress. I mean, seriously!

Will future generations look back on our understanding of alcohol the same way that we now look back – and laugh about – the 1960s’ and 1970s’ knowledge of tobacco?

Personally, I have concluded that reading any of it is most likely a waste of time. It will never get you to any clear conclusions.

3. Some of the (really) bad stuff is beyond any reasonable doubt

As you have seen by now, the field of alcohol research is a broad one, and it does not give up its secrets lightly. Though the good news is that for a start, we know for sure what, at its core, alcohol is.

A somewhat judgmental, but accurate and telling description is contained in “Alcohol Explained” by William Porter:

“Alcohol in its pure form is a highly poisonous chemical. It is a toxin that kills living things, …. which is why it is used to preserve food and sterilise. It sterilises by killing the germs it comes into contact with. It doesn’t just kill germs, it kills all living cells.”

Our body was designed to prevent us from harming ourselves, which is why when we are exposed to pure alcohol, it makes our eyes water and our nose run. You’d throw up if you ever tried to drink alcohol in its purest form. It is worth mentioning as a baseline that alcohol is indeed a highly toxic substance.

Naturally, we humans dilute it and do all sorts of things to make it palatable, enjoyable, and less dangerous. All drinks that we consume are mixed in such a way that alcohol’s effects are watered down. The variety of forms, circumstances, and variations for consuming alcohol is sheer endless.

Sadly, the same incredible variety also exists for the sheer number of health conditions that alcohol has been suspected to play a role in. The WHO warns that alcohol is a factor in more than 200 types of medical conditions.

Our body was designed to prevent us from harming ourselves, which is why when we are exposed to pure alcohol, it makes our eyes water and our nose run.

For many of those, the links will either be too weak to matter, or too speculative, or possibly even entirely wrong. Only time and further (unbiased) research will tell. In the meantime, because certain health officials have shouted wolf so many times, most people will have simply switched off when it comes to warnings about ill-health caused by alcohol. All the more when in the meantime, the media regularly distributes fantastic headlines speaking to all those people who want to believe that drinking is beneficial for them. E.g., no less than 76% of US-Americans have signed up to the theory that a little bit of alcohol is good for your heart, despite there being an equally strong body of evidence to debunk this belief. We believe what we want to believe.

However, there is no denying that there are shocking possibilities and risks. E.g., an estimate by the International Agency for Research on Cancer is that if you have 1.5 to 2 drinks per day, your “risk of breast cancer is about 1.2 times the risk of a non-drinking woman, all other factors being equal.”

Again, these are claims by some scientists, and others will make different claims.

Yet, if there was a significant chance that these figures turned out to be true after all, would you reconsider your relationship with alcohol?

I had a friend die in her early 30s from throat cancer, presumably caused by a combination of smoking and drinking. At the time, I wrote it off as probably smoking related. With what I know today, I wonder if alcohol played a significant risk; she lived in Russia where drinking is rife. I have come to realise that these risks are *probably* quite real, and there is no reliable way for me to determine how real they are for me. All I could do is simply ignore it and hope for the best. But is that good enough?

With even just the possibility of alcohol being implicated in significant increases in the risk of specific forms of cancer, and the added bonus of the substance probably also being seriously involved in dozens of other illnesses, should one even give any further thought to the question of those potentially good effects it has on one’s health? Where is the tipping point where bad effects offset the good effects?

Based on my own research on this subject I concluded that if alcohol wasn’t already on the market as a legal drink, it would never manage to get approval from today’s regulatory authorities because of the manyfold doubts and concerns that exist about the effects alcohol has on us. I am also saying that from the position of being a director of a company that is currently working to carry out clinical trials for a new medical device. Standards for market approvals are so high that alcohol would stand virtually no chance of being approved for the market today.

I am neither a scientist, nor a health professional, nor on a quest to convince anyone to adopt the same views and strategies that I use for myself. My new chosen way is to deal with the overwhelmingly complicated and surprisingly unreliable science about alcohol by just following my instinct and self-observation.

It seems evident (and obvious) to me that alcohol is bound to be damaging to my health in some shape or form. It is also without doubt not making any positive contributions to how my body looks like.

E.g., everyone has experienced how drinking makes us feel hungrier than we are which then leads to over-eat. Who hasn’t been to a junk food outlet on the way home after a boozy night out? There are simply so many aspects in which alcohol, even in relative moderation, has undeniable negative effects on us that after a while of actively engaging with the subject, you start to wonder how humanity could have ever been mad enough to let alcohol play such a prominent role in our lives.

So I asked myself: “Why continue putting this stuff into the only body I have?”

With all this on my mind, how did I fair in my 100-day experiment of staying away from the stuff?

My first 100-day experience

To my own surprise, my first 2 months were a breeze.

One should never underestimate the strength of the Hawthorne Effect, i.e., the psychological phenomenon that describes how people who are observed tend to work harder and perform better. By putting my experiment onto my Facebook profile and announcing that I was going to write about it, I ensured that I felt observed (and judged) by my friends. Nothing like a bit of peer pressure!

Also, during the initial period, there was a distinct sense of wanting to prove something to myself. Combine that with the excitement of the new, and I made it through the first two months with less than a handful of occasions where I nipped on a bit of alcohol, primarily because of circumstances such as a new business contact proudly showing me his new wine cellar. One has to be ambitious in long-term aspirations but practical in dealing with the curveballs that daily life throws at you.

Nothing is more difficult than abstaining from alcohol in what I would describe as our typical Western European or American social gathering.

The third month was a mixed bag, and the reasons for that go right to the heart of the single most challenging aspect of giving up on alcohol.

Nothing is more difficult than abstaining from alcohol in what I would describe as our typical Western European or American social gathering. All the more so, if you are the host!

During the third month, I hosted a group trip for 10 friends to the Galapagos Islands. The culinary aspect of the trip, which I had organised a year earlier, was a significant component. As was the availability of quality drinks throughout the journey. I didn’t drink large quantities, but I drank nearly every day of the trip.

During the third month I also already had a feeling of: “Oh, I can easily do this whenever I like.” This premature feeling of triumph made me lower my standards and accept more exceptions.

On the whole, though, I make a hand-waving guess that I reduced my alcohol intake during the 100 days by about 80%.

  • Usually, I would have drunk pretty much every single day. Doing this entire experiment, I drank on about 13 or 14 days.
  • When I did drink, I usually drank less than what I would have drunk; with one evening in April as a notable exception where I did stagger home (and fell, and hurt my knee – serves me right!).
  • Whereas I used to love Scotch Whiskey, I have nearly completely eliminated spirits from my list of drinks.

Since reaching the finishing line on 19 June, my performance has been excellent during some periods, and far from perfect during other periods. E.g., travelling in foreign lands where there are exotic local wines to taste is definitely one of my weaker sides, especially when in the company of others.

On the whole, though, my alcohol consumption is still WAY down compared to where it was as recently as early-2018, primarily because what I’ve learned from all this motivates me to simply drink less.

So, where do I go from here?

My 3 main conclusions and further strategy

I set out on this journey because I wanted to understand the unique phenomenon that is alcohol. It’s a substance that is woven so deeply into our lives that at times it can seem we are inseparable. Because we grow up in an environment where alcohol already has carved out a special place in our homes and refrigerators, we spend too little time questioning and investigating what it is and what it does.

Having now enjoyed an initial period of staying off drinks altogether or at least severely reducing the number of occasions on which I can be seen with a drink in my hand, I have come to some realisations that I just did not previously have:

1: Alcohol gets way too much credit for the happy feeling we have when attending social occasions. I have by now attended many an occasion where I drank little or nothing and had a great time regardless. It’s just objectively over-rated, once you look at it in broad daylight.

2: Staying off alcohol despite the social pressure that is put on you is one of many ways of making yourself independent from needing the approval from others. This will make you happier with yourself and more confident about your ways, which in turn will inevitably increase the number of possibilities available to you in your life in ways you can’t even imagine now. I want to create a positive framework for my life, and adding much alcohol to it and confirming to the social pressure of drinking doesn’t make that framework any better. On the other hand, going home sober after a thoroughly enjoyable evening out and waking up well-rested the next day feels incredibly empowering. Having a feeling of total control over your life is a beautiful thing and will lead you to success in other areas of life, too.

3: Alcohol, even just one glass, is a burden on our ability to process new information and make decisions. These are the two vital functions of a business executive. I have now also made it a mission to reduce the number of occasions I have to drink (or entertain with) alcohol in business. The immediate upshot was that I gained time, for I haven’t had many boozy business lunches recently which in itself saved time and also freed up afternoons that I would have otherwise used to sleep off those lunchtime wine bottles. I am in favour of – and slightly obsessed with – anything that increases my personal productivity.

At the beginning of this experiment, I didn’t really aim to transform my relationship with alcohol. My priority was to understand it better. Yet, as a result of that, I am now firmly on the path of transforming my approach to consuming alcohol. Following my initial 100-day experiment, I’ll continue on the path of reducing, i.e., minimising, the amount of alcohol I consume going forward.

Alcohol gets way too much credit for the happy feeling we have when attending social occasions.

I am doing so not on the back of negative messages about the harm that alcohol may cause but on the back of positive messages about what I can achieve by giving up or reducing drinking.

I have now come to realise that lowering my alcohol consumption is a vital component to reaching peak performance in all sorts of areas of life. E.g., not being able to use alcohol as a crutch for relaxing and switching off pushes you towards instead constructing a life where you simply don’t need an escape from your everyday thoughts, feelings, and obligations. Have you used alcohol to muster up the courage to approach someone you were interested in? Man up, and just approach that person regardless. It’ll feel incredibly empowering. Being able to speak coherently to that person and coming across as someone who is in control of things will also probably get you better results, too!

However, it’s also evident that trying to quit alcohol is really difficult. Which is why I’ll let you in on the three top life hacks that help me reduce how much I drink.

Hack 1: Gamify the challenge

Socialising within an alcohol-fuelled society and the ridiculous social pressure associated with alcohol is the no. 1 downfall for anyone who wants to abstain from or reduce their drinking. I am the first one to admit as much.

Luckily, for every problem, there is at least one strategy on how to overcome it relatively quickly. Following several months of experimenting, researching and contemplating, I now have put one in place for myself.

I decided to gamify the entire challenge, i.e., turn something nearly insurmountable into a game. Being able to socialise without giving in to the irresistible draw of alcohol is what I now call “the superpower of socialising sober” (credit to book author Catherine Gray for coining the term).

Think of it as learning a new language. As the book author, Catherine Gray, put it, “drinking has become our socialising mother tongue.” Learning how to socialise without drinking is similar to learning a new language. It also involves having to resist slipping into your mother tongue to explain something for which you don’t know the vocabulary yet.

Like with learning a language, it’s all about making a start and taking small steps in the beginning:

  • Start with realistic expectations, so that you experience the joy of quick wins.
  • Reframe the entire challenge to something positive that excites you. It shouldn’t be about what is verboten, but about what you will gain from changing your behaviour.

Think of it as learning a new language.

Give it a try, or spend a bit of time thinking through which approach might work for you. Being strategic about it pays dividends.

I am looking forward to being entirely fluent in the superpower of socialising sober. It’s a concrete goal to work towards and something that will feel incredibly satisfying and empowering once reached.

If you wanted to try something a bit simpler and more concrete, you can do so by simply writing down what has improved for you following your stopping or reducing of consuming alcohol.  In an experiment, 92% of people who had to write down the good stuff that happened to them felt happier because they recorded it. I personally experienced the same, e.g. when writing this article and putting it out there for anyone to read.

Hack 2: Use very few words to counter the peer pressure

You should regularly spend a bit of time reading about or thinking through how to deal with stressful situations.

E.g., many people seem to think they deserve an explanation for why you stopped to drink. The “Why?” that almost inevitably follows your divulging that you won’t drink can be incredibly intimidating to answer.

My personal golden rule, which I realised after a few weeks of trial and error with different messages: Reply with as few words as possible, and move on to another subject. The less you say, the smaller the chance your opposite feels like you are attempting to shame or judge others for their drinking; which lowers the chance of you getting any form of backlash.

Like with everything else in life, I recommend you simply work towards taking firm control. E.g., instead of enduring alcohol-soaked social occasions, why not organise alcohol-free social occasions yourself? I have found that not just I, but pretty much everyone enjoys broadening their horizon by pursuing activities that you wouldn’t very often find yourself in. Organising kayak trips, museum visits, and debate attendances gets you off the drinking circuit in the best possible way and adds a level of originality to your life. Everyone wins.

Hack 3: Give yourself a realistic time-frame

It will take at least a year to properly unplug from the world of regular drinking. Giving yourself such a period will also prevent you from trying to do too much too quickly or too dramatically.

You can also at first opt for the third option, i.e., semi-sobriety or “mindful drinking.” This is probably the most accurate description of where I am currently. For now, at least, I have remained an occasional drinker, but you would find it nigh impossible these days to get me drunk.

Here, too, is an opportunity to create some positive messaging for yourself. E.g., I’ll actually embrace having the occasional drink, just as I am occasionally having a bit of junk food amidst my overall healthy diet. Throwing your body for a loop every now and again by deviating from your routine helps your system remain active instead of turning stale, and it keeps your mind very aware of why you are staying off it the rest of the time.

Over time, you’ll probably automatically gyrate towards going from semi-sobriety to hardly drinking anymore at all (or even, to zero drinking).

Even more importantly, you will have a feeling of success even if your track record isn’t immediately perfect. Feeling good about your progress will enable you to continue and get yet better.

What I recommend you read

This article has taken you on a whirlwind tour of material taken from countless different sources. I went through heaps of material, and some of it was noteworthy enough to point out to you if you want to do further reading.

I am particularly grateful for the work William Porter has done with his book “Alcohol Explained.” It’s an independently published book that you wouldn’t easily come across. I love it for its clarity in spelling out the current state of research about alcohol’s ill-effects in clearly defined areas. William Porter also publishes a blog.

Another independently published book that is a treasure trove of information about the effects of alcohol is “Alcohol Companion” by Phil Cain. He, too, publishes a blog.

Last but not least, if you wanted to read about an English middle-class woman developing such an alcohol habit that she repeatedly spent a night in a prison cell, you should pick up the bestseller “The unexpected joy of being sober” by Catherine Gray. It does contain a lot of useful advice and ideas for those wanting to reduce the amount of alcohol they drink.

To everyone else whose research and thinking I used to educate myself about alcohol but who I am not naming by name – many thanks for your positive contribution to my life!

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