If you have reached the stage where it’s time to rethink the drink, Dr Libby is here to help. She is a renowned nutritional biochemist, which sounds intimidating but the thing that we love the most is that she turns all of that scientific speak into a language we can all understand. She talks to Wellbeings about why this is a great time to check in with the habits we’ve developed over the past pandemic years – and let go of what’s no longer serving us. Starting with: our alcohol consumption.
I wanted to talk to you about your relationship with alcohol; mine has gone through some changes over the past couple of years, and I’d love to know if yours has changed as well?
DR: I very much believe that it’s really just one of the ways that people cope with things. And it can have a very light-hearted role in people’s lives. Or it can be a real crux and something that can be incredibly damaging both to their physical health, and, to their mental health, and also their relationships and connections with others.
For me personally, I couldn’t care less about it. If it disappeared from the planet, it wouldn’t worry me. It’s not really something I think about, I do indulge occasionally. But I don’t have a strong connection with it at all. I think that part of the challenge for a lot of people is that it’s become part of every day. And it’s what we do every day that impacts on our health, it’s not what we do occasionally.
When I was working with patients, I would get to the point in the consultation where I would ask: do you drink? If they said yes, I’d ask what do you choose? And if it was wine, or gin and tonic or whatever their choice was, I’d say: so tell me what it is wine is, and get them to finish the sentence. And we’d chat until there were about 200 phrases on the page.
It’s not just a cold beer at the end of a hard day’s work, and then you don’t think about it again for another week. It’s that everydayness: you need it, you’re thinking about it at midday, you’re saying to yourself, I’m only having one glass of wine. And before you know it, you’ve had the whole bottle.
So, they’re the people with whom I do that exercise. And for some people, they’ll say, ‘it’s the only way I can relax at the end of the day’. Or ‘I finally give myself permission to stop’ or ‘it’s when I connect with the person I love the most in the world’.
And if I am to then call someone on that I would in all honesty, I would say well, with respect, that’s a story you’ve made up to justify your choices – because you haven’t always used alcohol to relax you, you could pour yourself a glass of sparkling water and squeeze some fresh lemon into it and then sit down and still connect with the person you love the most, and have those heartwarming, connected conversations at the end of the day. We justify our choices sometimes because it’s actually what we do while we drink, that’s what we’re connected to and what we love.
Can you break down the science about what’s happening in our body when we consume alcohol?
I don’t say this lightly: It is a poison to us. And what I mean by that is, if it were to accumulate in our blood, we would go into a coma and eventually die. But of course, the body is clever, and it has mechanisms that allow us to get rid of it. So, when we consume alcohol, it gets delivered to the liver. And the liver has to change the structure of alcohol into another substance. And it’s called acid aldehyde. People don’t need to get hooked on big silly names, but it’s an acid aldehyde, which actually will accumulate and give us the symptoms of a hangover. So, we then have to clear the acid aldehyde from the body, which is the excretion product of alcohol.
Our liver plays an enormous role in how we feel and function every day. And I’ve created a detox course, actually, to help people understand the truth and the myths about detoxification because it’s not just alcohol that our body has to change the structure of to get rid of. We’re exposed to all sorts of pollutants on a daily basis through what we eat and drink, put on our skin and also inhale. So very gradually over our lives, what I refer to as our total body burden is just slowly increasing. And that can have enormous health consequences. Because we store all sorts of problematic substances that we haven’t been able to clear, efficiently, from the body. We store it in our body fat, in our brain tissue, in our bones, and we don’t want those things hanging around. We want the efficient clearance of those things we take in that don’t belong in the body, and alcohol is one of them.
For people that are thinking about stepping away from alcohol, what do you say to them when you’re trying to work out what is keeping them drinking?
It’s really good fun to approach things with curiosity. You don’t need someone like me to be saying, ‘oh, I think you’re having too much of something’. I think we know in our own hearts when we’re having too much of something. So the bigger question is, if you know you’re having too much of something, why are you still doing that? I encourage people to approach it with real curiosity. [For example] ‘I do know, in my heart, that I am having too much of this…’ Drinking has really taken hold for a lot of people over the last two years working from home. And you can bring real quick curiosity to not only your choices, but to what life could be like without that.
Maybe your irritability has really increased; You drive down the street, you used to drive down, and now even the potholes annoy you. Or you notice that you’re responding to the people you love the most in the world with more impatience than before.
So, we start to notice these changes in the way we express ourselves. And if you bring curiosity to that and think, okay, well, I wonder if I take a break from alcohol, I wonder if that will shift. So, it’s not coming from a place of deprivation, it’s not coming from, ‘you’re not allowed to have that.’ It’s coming from a place of ‘My liver is so amazing, and I want to look after it better. My body is just the most amazing Earth suit. And it allows me to get out and do all the things I need to do in a day. My brain and my brain chemistry, my beliefs, my values are all reflected in my behaviour. And the way I speak to other people, I’m really curious if without alcohol, I would show up in a different way.’
One of the things that’s really helped me is having a mindfulness practice around drinking. We know it’s got huge upsides for the body. How do we put that into practice from your point of view?
For some people, they’ll leave work or they’ll leave a social situation, and all they can think about is ‘I can’t wait to have a drink’. Something’s gone on there. And it’s again, that’s where I come back to curiosity where you want to begin to examine what’s gone on. Are you actually hungry or thirsty? So and so we bring mindfulness to where our desire stems from. A lot of people want alcohol at the end of a workday, because they haven’t eaten enough during the day and we forget that white wine contains sugar. So, you’re thirsty, and you’re hungry. So, you get home and that’s what you want. Whereas you could do an experiment, if you’re suspicious that it’s a physical desire for something that you have, you could have a big drink of water, then have one or two handfuls of nuts and actually then see if you still want the alcohol. That’s one mechanism of a mindfulness practice that would give you some insight into the desire.
Or maybe you’re heading towards the end of the day and all you can think about is ‘I can’t wait to have a drink’. Start to reflect on the day and notice, if you consciously or unconsciously perceived others disapproving of you. I think a lot of people drink because they’re trying to escape from stress, essentially. But what is stress? Really, I think a lot of it comes from when we have traits that we need other people to see in us. And it’s a wonderful exercise to do, is to pause and think, okay, how do I need other people to see me and name those traits. I need them to see me as ‘kind, thoughtful, selfless, or it might be competent, efficient, hardworking, intelligent’. Whatever it is, there’s no right or wrong. It’s just whatever is unique to you. And then at the end of the day, when you’re busting for alcohol, you think, ‘okay, have I perceived across the day that people are seeing me in the opposite way to how I need to be seen. Is my desire for alcohol coming from my need to escape from the perceived disapproval of others?’ Because that’s huge for people of every age, we just don’t necessarily realise we’re doing it.
Where we just get really curious about all these crazy stories we make up about who we must be, there’s incredible power in that. We stack those experiences over the day. And then we’re drawn to alcohol at the end of the day to try to stop ourselves from touching on that inside.
In New Zealand, and I think Australia as well, there is that binge drink culture as well. But for me, when it comes to my sleep, you know, I can have one beer and my sleep scores just go completely off a cliff. So what’s happening in our body when we have booze?
There are four stages to sleep and alcohol stops us getting into our deepest state of sleep, which is where all the healing repair work that needs to go on happens while we’re asleep. When I first talk to people about how alcohol consumption can disrupt sleep, sometimes people sort of screw their face up, because they think ‘No, no, I need it to be able to fall asleep.’ And it might make you fall asleep faster, but it stops you having restorative sleep.
Again, if it was only 10 times a year, then that’s not going to have a big impact on our sleep. But a lot of people are regularly over-consuming alcohol and having it every day. And then we get into a situation then we’re very rarely getting into that restorative part of sleep, which is not good for our long-term health. It also starts to mess with our body’s ability to regulate our own appetites. Sleep is hugely tied up with appetite regulation. It also stops us from being able to lower our stress hormones effectively, which is obviously something that everybody needs in this day and age.
Do you think there’s a greater curiosity for giving up drinking than there was, say, five years ago, particularly with things like Dry July?
A lot of people have shared with me that because they were working from home, sometimes alcohol was, you know, beginning to be consumed at 4.30pm, instead of that little bit later. So, I think that the overconsumption of it has potentially risen. And people have justified that in their minds because of all of the uncertainty and the challenges that have unfolded over the last two years. So given that Dry July can be a collective experience and can foster a real sense of community, I think it’s great to kind of reset now that the world is opening back up again. ‘Okay, I developed some habits that really don’t support me long term, over the last two years, that’s finished now. Let’s draw a line and set up for the next chapter of my life. Let me experience not relying on alcohol. Let me experience what life’s like, what my energy is like, what my sleep is like, what my appetite is like, what my connection with other people, the way I’m able to relate to others is like; that calmness with which I’m able to respond to others.” Taking a break from alcohol can have such a positive ripple effect through all sorts of elements of our life that we can’t even anticipate.
What excites you about this moment in time? How optimistic are you about the future?
I’m an eternal optimist, Dom. I think it’s incredibly important right now to be reflecting on ‘what choices am I making that do support me?’ Because people are, it’s almost like a stop, kick start. [But] I also think sometimes, as we begin to focus on the future, it can help us to recognize what we’re already doing that’s excellent as well as the things we want to change. Because when we’re always in the pursuit of things, we can miss the magic of right now. And when you talk to people who are dying, and you ask them what they’re gonna miss the most in the world, they tell you the most ordinary things, and they say they’re gonna miss their partner’s face or the feeling of their dog’s fur under their fingertips or the night sky. And we have all of that right now. So, I think it’s incredibly important to let ourselves have what we already have. Because I think that’s what joy is all about and joy gives us an irreplaceable depth of energy.