Finding Balance, Part 1: Mindful January
I am definitely in the camp that consoled myself throughout the month of December while I was eating and drinking to my heart’s desire, that everything would be ok in the clear winter light of January, when I would become reacquainted with green leafies, exercise every day like I used to, take naps, and undo all my gluttony from the month before. I wouldn’t be drinking either, only ‘tasting’ to write notes for private clients, since I’d be too busy reorganizing my life into the model of health and efficiency I know it can be if only I buy the right goal-setting planner and take some time to focus.
Dry January would change me. I would start 2019 by detoxing and resetting with healthy habits after a month of no alcohol or dessert. Goals would be met! I wouldn’t feel quite so irresponsible about all the fun I had in December, an odd month of short, dark days, abandoned schedules, and lots of fancy parties.
I’m not sure when my resolve loosened, but at some point well before January, it hit me that I could actually start changing habits at any time, even during December, and that my plan to be extreme during January might be as unbalanced as taking full liberties to indulge for four weeks straight. Both justifications (‘It’s the holidays; I can do what I want!’ / ‘It’s January, I’d better straighten up and fly right!’) are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum and to be honest, both actually take a lot of effort to maintain. Was Dry January really the answer?
For those unfamiliar with the term, Dry January means foregoing all alcohol for the entire month in order to recover or ‘detox’ from the holiday season and to re-establish drinking habits, especially if you’ve gotten a little ‘extra’ with the booze here and there. It began in the UK and has made its way into the US, as the benefits of abstaining from alcohol cannot be refuted. Scientific studies, and common sense, show that Dry January is actually a really great practice.
But to my earlier point, abstinence is extreme. I wasn’t quite sure how to handle my plan to basically not worry about it in December, then constantly worry about it in January.
So, as one does, I went to the experts.
Ironically, I met with Diana Marlin, RD, LDN, founder of Nourishmnt Nutrition in Philadelphia, PA, in a bar. I chose Diana because I really like her approach of ‘joyful self care’ and ‘a realistic (diet) plan’ without ‘lectures, foods to avoid, or pre-printed handouts’ (all direct statements from Nourishmnt’s website). This kind of guidance feels more like real life than suddenly and drastically altered behavior based on discipline that is likely to wane. Over one glass of wine and two waters each, I asked her about how to find the proper balance of ‘making up’ for the holidays, and readjusting to every day life without taking extreme measures.
Winelala: Thanks for meeting with me to talk about Dry January. Is it still popular with your clients, and do they really fully give up alcohol for the entire month?
Diana Marlin: January is a month for resolutions, and for a lot of people, that includes participating in “dry January”. This is something that I have heard friends and clients talk about this time of year, and it is definitely a popular trend. There was actually just an interesting article shared in the Nutrition and Dietetics Smart Brief put out by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics this week that said that for people who participate in dry January, they may end up consuming less alcohol for several months after dry January is over. It also shared that people who didn’t even complete the full month of dry January still experienced some benefits.
Winelala: What is your reaction to this as a concept?
Diana Marlin: Interestingly, according to George F. Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the benefits of dry January are not as noticeable for people who drink moderately as opposed to people who drink in excess. So while it’s never a bad idea to abstain from alcohol, it is also absolutely okay to enjoy alcohol in a moderate, healthy way. Ultimately, a dry January doesn’t protect you if you then drink to excess in February (or if it gives you a reason to drink to excess in December). If you find the idea of dry January too restrictive, you may benefit from instead, setting your intentions to develop a healthier, more balanced relationship with alcohol all year long. It is absolutely possible to develop healthier habits with alcohol without cutting it out completely, and if abstaining entirely isn’t for you, there is still a lot you can do to consume alcohol in a more balanced way.
Winelala: I love your use of the word ‘balance’. As a wine writer, I am often asked about the health aspect of wine, aka, 'Alcohol is bad, do you drink every day?', or conversely its intoxicating effects are treated a bit as taboo so go unmentioned, OR they're treated in a manner I find that completely misses the point (for example, the 'mommy wine' jokes.) Not that we have to take ourselves too seriously, but can we talk about how alcohol, wine in particular, can be a normal, healthy part of your life and diet?
Diana Marlin: Alcohol, when consumed slowly, mindfully, and intentionally, can be a very joyful experience that can fit into a healthy lifestyle. There is interesting research regarding the fact that it is not so much what type of alcohol you drink as it is HOW you drink it that can adversely affect your health. For example, in the Nurses’ Health Study I and II, they found that women who spread out their alcohol consumption moderately through the week are better off than women who drink the same amount of drinks in the week, but all within a day or two.
Winelala: Interesting, as the idea of drinking every day, even only a glass or so, always seemed excessive to me. But binge drinking the same amount in a shorter period is actually worse for the body. Practically speaking then, how do we healthily integrate alcohol into our diets?
Diana Marlin: I recommend people set their intentions for their alcohol intake before starting to drink. It’s important to ask yourself how much you intend on drinking, and then find strategies to help you to hit your goal that work for you. Ask yourself:
-In what situations do I want to drink?
-In what situations do I not want to drink?
-How will I handle situations where I don't want to drink but others are drinking around me?
-What is my limit? What steps can I take to make sure I respect my limit?
-How might drinking more mindfully and intentionally help me to drink in moderation?
Winelala: And once these questions are answered, what can we do in a situation to make sure we stick to our plans?
Diana Marlin: One approach I recommend is to enjoy your drink slowly and mindfully. For example, this can be achieved by noticing the color of the wine once its poured in the glass, smelling its fragrance, sipping it slowly, making a mental note of the different flavors you taste, and deciding whether you like it or don’t like it. If you don’t like it, it’s okay not to drink it! There is actually a whole movement called mindful drinking! Other tips include not drinking on an empty stomach, and to always have a glass of water before drinking and between drinking alcohol. If you find you don’t want another glass of water, then you likely don’t need to skip right to another glass of wine.
Winelala: That is a really interesting self test and great tip. I don't want to sound like I'm pushing drinking on anyone. If someone is trying to change habits by going through a dry period, I'm their biggest fan. Let's talk quickly about the downside of alcohol and go past the things we all already know it causes - slurred speech, impaired judgement, etc. Can we talk about some of the lesser known but impactful things excessive alcohol does?
Diana Marlin: Some known problems linked to heavy drinking include inflammation of the liver, increased blood pressure, disrupted sleep, a weakened immune system, and even damage to the skin. Here is a good graphic that thoroughly illustrates the side effects of excessive drinking.
Winelala: Whoa, that graphic is heavy. Looking at the much shorter, less chronic term - say we do have a big night out, how do we counter some of the effects?
Diana Marlin: Hangovers are definitely not fun. Since alcohol is a diuretic, a night of heavy drinking can leave you dehydrated. One of the best ways to combat a hangover is to stay hydrated before, during, and after drinking. Another key is to rest! Alcohol can actually mess with the hormones that regulate our built in body clocks, which may explain why people feel so groggy and fatigued after a night of drinking. It can help to eat a balanced breakfast in the morning, which works to stabilize blood sugar levels which then helps to reduce shakiness and queasiness. If you experience vomiting, it may help to consume an electrolyte-enhanced beverage like Smart Water or even Pedialyte.
Winelala: Can you share some practical advice on how to handle alcohol and why it can fit into a healthy and balanced lifestyle?
Diana Marlin: Moderation is key, which is defined as no more than1 drink a day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men.
Diana made some great follow up points around making daily, whole-health decisions to regulate your body in terms of detoxing. ‘Our livers and kidneys are actually very efficient at cleaning materials out of our systems, we need to treat them well all the time and let them do their jobs’, she stated, rather than going on extreme and restrictive detox plans. Diana pointed out that full-on denial can be unhealthy since it creates an allure.
We talk so often wine about balance. The interplay between the components and the roles they play to match each other, flow in tune, and lift each other up. Balance allows for a very complete experience, and this translates into life and habits, too. Healthy practices lead to a healthy mind which leads to a healthy body. Balance in wine, a balance in life.
So get out there, into January, whether it’s full of amazing wine or none at all, and into the rest of the year with mindful intentions in place.