A break from my significant other – 10 weeks alcohol free: Week 6

Day 36: Monday

We’re at the end of a long weekend, and another spent at Waiheke. It has been a stunning couple of days. Very warm and sunny, especially for early June. Lots of walks had, the kids had a great time with their little cousins, all very relaxing.

Our times at Waiheke, as I may have mentioned previously, are invariably punctuated by drinking. A rose or bloody mary at lunch (or 2 or 3), then wine from 6pm. Richard’s parents have enough self discipline to set rules around when drinks start and finish, so it is rare that we start drinking at lunch time and carry on into the evening.

But it has been known to happen.

This time, of course, there was none of that. At least, none from our side. The rest of the family (excluding kids, we’re not complete animals) continued as usual, which to be honest was welcomed. And from what I could see, it didn’t affect our dynamic at all.

Everyone was accepting of what we are trying to do, and supported us in our endeavours. To be honest, I didn’t really miss it at all.

Day 37: Tuesday

So, this is supposed to be the halfway mark. Except it isn’t, as I explained last week. I was going to do a full check in, with photos, looking at weight, size, skin, liver count and so on, but it probably is more sensible to push that out until my new halfway mark, at the end of week 7.

For what it’s worth:

  • I’ve lost just under 2kg
  • The bags under my eyes are less pronounced (photos later
  • I’ll talk to the doctor about another liver test tomorrow

I’d like to tell you I’m saving a fortune, but after roughly a month, I’m not seeing a demonstrable difference, so I think I need to analyse the numbers a bit more closely. I don’t feel like I’m spending more on food, but who knows.

Day 38: Wednesday

Haha! After writing yesterday that my weight had dropped by just under two kilogrames, I woke this morning to find another 500g had disappeared JUST LIKE THAT!

Friends keep commenting about how much weight I must be losing, but I hadn’t really been seeing it so far. I mentioned early on that I’d rejoined Weight Watchers, so I am watching what I eat, and exercising daily, but not obsessively so. The main change has been removing alcohol from my diet.

I feel like my clothes are fitting me a bit better, but that could be wishful thinking. It’s probably time to take some more photos (I took some at the beginning of this, but haven’t posted yet) and see what’s really happening. Once again, I think I’ll wait until my new halfway mark.

Day 39: Thursday

Rich and I had another conversation about what our drinking habits might look like when we finally start again.

I’m a bit worried that I’ll do what I did post-pregnancy. I distinctly remember a phone conversation I had with my sister when I was about 38 weeks pregnant:

Me: ” You know, I think I could easily never drink again”

Bec: “Me too”

Fast forward 6 weeks or so….. actually, I was breast feeding then, so it wasn’t that bad, but it’s fair to say I certainly wasn’t abstaining for very long after giving birth. The volume kept heading upwards too, as the years have passed.

Rich doesn’t seem to be very worried about new habits at all, but I am. I feel like what is the point of having done this if I’m just going to slide back into old patterns?

Current thinking is:

  • Try to follow the Ministry of Health guidelines (no more than 10 drinks per week)
  • Don’t drink on school nights (Sunday to Thursday)

The not drinking school nights is because I’m really loving the amount of energy I have during the day. I’m charging through more, I feel more motivated, I don’t get to the end of the day and feel like I’ve been wasting time. It’s a pleasantly unexpected side effect.

Day 40: Friday

I am so bored with myself.

I came home tonight after a day sampling sausages for some good friends. I’d been on my feet all day, it hadn’t been as busy as I would have hoped, and I was tired. I just wanted to pour myself a glass of wine, put my feet up and relax in front of the TV for the evening.

But no. No drinking for me. No drinking for me for another 6 weeks!

Seriously, this really sucks. I feel like the fun has been sucked out of my life. We hardly ever go out at night any more, I never feel silly, or super relaxed. Or just drunk. Because being drunk is fun! Not being really drunk, but a little bit drunk is fun.

And this isn’t fun.

I don’t smoke, I don’t take drugs, I eat healthily, I exercise regularly, surely I’m allowed one vice! I know that the wheels had fallen off lately, and the discipline has gone sideways, but for GOD’S SAKE, I can’t do this forever!

Sorry. I don’t mean to shout. I’m just annoyed.

Day 41: Saturday

I didn’t cave. I was very controlled and didn’t drink last night. It helps that there is no wine in the house, and hitting the liquor cabinet felt more than a little extreme.

I also felt considerably more rational about what I’m doing. I needed to remind myself that my doctor had an overt expression of relief on her face when I said I wasn’t going to drink for three months. Which means my liver is not as healthy as I have been deluding myself that it is.

We went out to a friend’s house for dinner tonight, which was great. It made me realise that I can be around people who are drinking without drinking myself, and still have a good time. My enjoyment of the company of others is not dependent on booze. Even better, my recollection of the night is sharp, and I won’t wake with a hangover in the morning.

Plus we could drive both ways, no Uber required.

I need to keep reminding myself of the little things.

What I’ve learned this week: Why we drink.

I was interested in why we, as humans, feel the need to drink. To be intoxicated. I know it feels good, but then it feels bad, so wouldn’t we just not? After all, alcohol is poison, we are highly evolved, mostly clever beings, wouldn’t we just stay away from it?

Is there something at an evolutionary level that makes us like alcohol, despite it’s inherent dangers?

Robert Dudley, who is a professor of biology at UC Berkley and author of the book Drunken Monkey, says our love of alcohol can be traced back to our evolutionary ancestors need to find food. More specifically, the need for monkeys to find fruit which is ripe. Ripe fruit gives off a distinctive alcohol smell, especially in tropical climates, which is a strong identifier for when fruit is ready to eat. Given the short window that fruit is ripe for before becoming rotten, it’s best to eat as much as you can before it gets eaten by others or before it runs out. Luckily, alcohol stimulates appetite, another evolutionary advantage.

To quote Dudley’s opinion piece in the Huffington Post:

“..the psychoactive effects of alcohol, as contained within sugar-rich fruit pulp, may have evolved to let hungry primates more efficiently find and consume scarce calories in the forest. This is part of our ancestral sensory and behavioral baggage that is retained into modern times. We even obtain health benefits from low-level alcohol consumption relative to either abstention or high levels of drinking.”

Anthropologically, alcohol has been part of human culture for millenia, playing an important role in communal life, socially, spiritually and emotionally.

Although it is very difficult to find non-judgemental information about how alcohol affects our brain and what part that plays in our liking for it, I eventually found out that alcohol stimulates cortex, hippocampus and nucleus accumbens, which are responsible for thinking and pleasure seeking.

According to howstuffworks.com,

“Alcohol affects brain chemistry by altering levels of neurotransmitters…Alcohol increases the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. GABA causes the sluggish movements and slurred speech…At the same time, alcohol inhibits the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate. Suppressing this stimulant results in a similar type of physiological slowdown. In addition to increasing the GABA and decreasing the glutamate in the brain, alcohol increases the amount of the chemical dopamine in the brain’s reward center, which creates the feeling of pleasure that occurs when someone takes a drink.”

So dopamine appears to be pretty key for making us want to drink. We drink, dopamine is released, we feel good. Until we feel bad in the morning.

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Hypochondriac? Me? With pears poached in mulled wine.

We have a challenging relationship with illness in my family. I’m not talking serious illness (at least at this point), but just your average, common-or-garden varietal colds, sore stomachs and aches and pains.

In my family, there’s a divide between my mother’s and my father’s sides of the family. My mother comes from a family of Scotsmen, which I guess sums up all there is to say about stoicism. Or damned bloody mindedness, for a more direct turn of phrase.

The general approach to sickness among our clan is to suck it up and get on with it. My mother’s approach to handling me as a unwell child was “go to school and see how you feel”. Code for “unless you have the plague you’re not staying home”.

When it came to my grandmother, her approach was benign, but as it turns out, deadly. She avoided going to the doctor at all costs, lest she be found malingering. She’d talk to the doctor about his personal problems, rather than her own (I should mention my grandmother was Scottish, white haired and under 5 feet tall. Like a miniature Mrs Doubtfire). Ultimately, a sore above her top lip, which she’d avoided having treatment for, developed into a malignancy which had to be cut out, leaving a nasty scar. She died far too young at 70, after complaining for months about breathlessness caused by issues with her legs. Her actual issue was that she was diabetic, and as a result had heart problems, which could have been easily treated. We didn’t find that out until after she died from a heart attack.

My father’s side of the family takes a completely opposing approach. My paternal grandmother lived to be 98 (albeit with dementia), unbelievably sound of body, if not mind. She walked, played croquet, worked in her garden, and took herself off to bed at the slightest hint of a tickle at the back of her throat. We were warned not to kiss her, unless we fell to “the Bot”. Not really sure what that’s short for.

My father has followed in her footsteps. Even a hint of illness warrants a doctors visit. Much to my mother’s chagrin. She sighs, rolls her eyes, and talks about his hypochondria. Dad is healthy as an ox in his mid-70’s, goes to the gym three times a week, plays sport, goes fishing, is generally active, and rarely unwell. Mum, has angina, polymyalgia (a kind of rheumatism), a high risk of bowl cancer and takes a raft of medication, which has subsequently given her kidney issues.

I should mention my father’s family were based in New Zealand in WW2, with all the opportunity that afforded. My mother’s family were in Scotland, and were far more exposed to nutritional and environmental challenges that shaped the way they thought and behaved.

The point of all this is how it affects the way I think. I am rubbish at being sympathetic when my kids are unwell. I have, embarrassingly, adopted my mother’s suck-it-and-see approach to sending kids to school when they’re feeling sick.

I feel terrible every time I do it and get the call later in the day from the school nurse.

I always feel like a fraud when I go to the doctor. I’ve recently had an allergic reaction which has resulted in a rash over most of my body. I tried, for 10 days, to treat it with antihistamines, until I finally caved and went to A&E. If I’d been more prepared to face a doctor before it became unbearable, I might have saved myself $100 by making an appointment with my GP. That allergy has become chronic urticaria, which if not resolved in the next week, will lead to visits to an immunologist.

So I’m not sure that taking the stoic approach is best. While I worry my kids are missing school, the alternative is to send them to school and have their potential virus spread like wildfire. An illness that could be easily resolved by getting onto it early can end up being something far more serious without treatment (as demonstrated by my late maternal grandmother).

Time to suppress the little voice in my head that says I’m a fraud, or that my children are pretending, or that my husband is a hypochondriac and take the time to look after ourselves. Better to live a long healthy life, with the odd day in bed recovering, than a short life, with head held high because I could “suck it up”.

PEARS POACHED IN MULLED WINE

Red wine, in small doses, is shown to have great health benefits. Good for body and soul. Here’s a recipe that makes great use of seasonal pears, which I’ve prepared for my friend Charlotte. Her blog A Beautiful Mind, to raise awareness of possible ways to prevent Alzhiemer’s Disease. Her blog this week is all about red wine, so make sure you go and have a read.

2 cups red wine 2017-05-27 08.37.26
1/3 cup sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
6 whole cloves
2 whole star anise
Peel of one orange
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
4 pears, peeled (I used buerre bosc)
200g mascapone
100g greek yoghurt

  1. In a medium saucepan, heat red wine, sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, orange peel and vanilla essence. Bring to a simmer and stir until sugar as dissolved.
  2. Add pears, bring to the boil, reduce heat, cover and cook for 1 hour, turning carefully to keep the pears evenly coloured.
  3. Remove from heat and refrigerate until cooled.
  4. Check red wine syrup for thickness. If sauce hasn’t reduced during cooking process, strain our spices and return sauce to the boil. Cook until desired thickness is reached.
  5. Mix mascapone and yoghurt together until evenly combined.
  6. Serve pears drizzled with red wine syrup, with mascapone alongside.

Gut health in a bottle. Kombucha.

My good friend, Charlotte Devereux, runs a very important blog, beautifulmindnz.com. In this, she writes about her mother’s terrible and tragic battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She also provides advice and research into some of the simple things we can do in our every day lives to try to stave off this dreadful disease.

Anyway, her latest post is about gut health, and the relationship between the health of our gut bacteria and our brain (I’ve written about this in the past). She asked me to contribute a recipe for kombucha (which I’ve been making for the past year or so), and here it is.

I started my own SCOBY from scratch, using these instructions, but if you can’t be bothered waiting, look on line to see if anyone has a healthy SCOBY to give away.

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Charlotte’s beautiful daughter, India, with my kombucha (Photo: Jasmine Devereux Barnes)

KOMBUCHA

1. Heat 2 litres of water until boiling. If you’re not using filtered water, boil water for 10 minutes to burn off any chlorine.

2. Stir in ¾ cup of plain sugar until dissolved. This seems like a lot, but don’t worry, the bacteria and yeast will eat most of this during the fermentation process. You could also use brown sugar for a more caramel flavour, but don’t use honey or artificial sweeteners. Honey has antibacterial properties, and artificial sweetener won’t provide the food needed.

3. Add 2-3 teaspoons of loose tea or 4-6 teabags. You can use black or green tea, but don’t use earl grey tea as this will kill the bacteria necessary for fermentation.

4. Brew for 4-8 minutes depending on how strong you like your tea, then strain out tea leaves, reserving the tea.

5. Leave tea to cool until room temperature (22⁰C or less).

6. Stir through 200ml of unflavoured kombucha (store bought is ok if you’re just starting, but make sure you reserve some for your next batch)

7. Pour into a sterilised jar, and using clean hands, lay the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) into the tea. Cover with a fine muslin cloth or paper towel and secure to keep out any fruit flies or dust. Set aside in a cool dark place and wait for the SCOBY to do its job.

8. After approximately 7 days, taste the kombucha. If it’s still very sweet, it’s not ready. Taste daily until it has the right balance of sweet and sour, and has become fizzy. This can take up to 30 days depending on the temperature of your house (it’ll take longer in winter).

9. When the kombucha tastes the way you like, pour into sealable bottles (I use home brew glass bottles with strong swing tops), and set aside for the second fermentation. This is the point where you can add flavourings. The second fermentation should take between 3 and 7 days depending on what flavours you’ve added (see below for a few ideas, but don’t be afraid to experiment). When the kombucha is very fizzy, refrigerate until you’re ready to drink.

Flavouring ideas:

You can be as creative as you like with flavourings, especially as you become more confident with the kombucha brewing process. Fruit, herbs and spices are all great additions, particularly if you’re using fruit in season.

  • Ginger and kaffir lime leaf – add a large thumb sized piece of ginger, sliced, and 4 whole kaffir lime leaves to the water with the tea at step 3. At the second fermentation (step 9) add a slice of ginger and a whole kaffir lime leaf to each bottle before adding the kombucha.
  • Berry – at the second fermentation (step 9) add a handful of mixed berries (blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, fresh or frozen) to each bottle. If using fresh, lightly crush the berries to release some of the juice. Top with kombucha and leave to ferment.
  • Plum and thyme – at the second fermentation, add plum slices to each bottle, and a sprig of fresh thyme. Top with kombucha and leave to ferment.