A natural high?

Sky high
photo credit: Simon Whitaker

Most of the things we humans do for pleasure are, once you get down to it, an attempt to manipulate brain chemicals. Sure, we might say that we go to concerts because we love music, but really, we love the fact that music releases dopamine in the brain cos it feels pretty darn nice. (Really, it does do this, according to those oracles at the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-12135590). The same can be said about sex, funny films, earning money, completing difficult tasks, eating nice food, and even love. (Apart from the love I have, in case my other half is reading this: our love is obviously on a higher plane…)

Which is why the whole alcohol thing is so understandable. Humans are basically driven to give those lovely chemicals a bit of a boost, and alcohol (and other drugs) are a way to cut out the middle man and cut straight to the chase.

Talking of cutting to the chase, I’ll get to the point of this post. Once you cut out alcohol completely, it leaves you with a big gap to fill: how to chase those pleasurable chemicals now? Apart from the obvious such as taking up a little heroin habit (something that was actually suggested to me – I’m assuming in jest), this leaves a big hole. But the great thing about having a big hole, is that there’s so much more with which to fill it. (Yes I know, those with a filthy mind, I could have phrased this slightly more pleasantly. But hey ho.)

All that time spent chasing that high down the pub, or over a romantic meal, leaves room for other, healthier, and dare I say it more pleasurable pursuits. In my case, one of those is running.

What do you think about while you’re running?

The runner’s high is well-documented and, trust me, it’s real. The sun on your face, the wind in your hair… OK, well that part is rubbish, but the smug self-satisfaction you get after you finish is priceless. I’m kidding, before the die-hard runners tell me I’m doing it wrong. I do love the act of running. The pain and the struggle is all part of what I love about it.

The difference between running and drink is that running adds to your life, whereas I truly believe alcohol takes away. Every time you have a few drinks, you sell a little piece of yourself for an hour of pleasure, and you’re left depleted. But every time you run, the opposite happens: you gain something, you emerge from the pain and the bursting lungs and the burning muscles a different person, something better than yesterday.

Now I’ll be honest, on the running scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is Paula Radcliffe and 1 is Great Grandma, I probably weigh in at about a 3. I’ve been running for years but never really improve; that car tyre round my thighs stubbornly remains and my 5k times never really progress beyond that of the geriatric walking society. But to me it doesn’t really matter. (Well OK, it does drag a little bit). At the end of the day, I am much better with running than without it, and it spills into every other area of my life. I am a harder worker, and I am a palatable(ish) person to live with; I have more energy; I sleep better; and I feel motivated to eat more healthily (sometimes).

But most importantly, it keeps those chemicals flowing round my brain. Which, at the end of the day, is the best that life has to offer, with or without drink.

So what’s your view? Do you think a pint down the pub is a little slice of heaven, or do you think there are better ways to chase that elusive high? Please feel free to comment below.

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A few insights about drinking

sobriety checkpoint

photo credit: McBLG97

As you may know, this is not my first stint of temporary insanity teetotalism.  Recently I gave up alcohol for one year.  It’s amazing the responses this statement elicits: occasional admiration, but usually disbelief, bordering on disgust, with a few visits into the territory of naked hostility.  But if you think about it, why should people care? This question has led me to have a few insights into the whole drinking phenomenon:

Insight #1

If you’re not drinking, you’d better well have a good excuse unless you want to be harangued for the entire evening.  “I don’t want to” will not suffice.  A few good ones which will usually quieten the interrogative drinker are:

– “I’m driving” (although you’d better make sure you actually are driving, as otherwise sod’s law dictates that your friends will bump into you on the night bus and you will end stuck in an elaborate story about being a bus driver)

– “I’m pregnant” (not the best excuse if you’re not pregnant, or a man – best not to say this unless you actually are pregnant, or are completely sure you will not know these people in nine months)

– “It gives me an upset stomach” – even the most persistent drinker will probably drop the subject, for fear of finding out intimate details of your bowels.

– “I’m a recovering alcoholic” – interestingly enough, if you don’t provide one of the above excuses, people will often assume this.  I was once at a do where I declined champagne in favour of Shloer, and a certain present party brazenly enquired whether I had a ‘problem’ with alcohol.  This interested me – if it were any other drug, the one *not* using would not be considered to have a problem.  If I decline a cigarette, smokers do not assume I have a problem with smoking.  If I decline cocaine, they do not assume I am a crackhead while they happily work their way through the next line (or whatever cocaine users do).

–  “I can’t, I’ve given up for charity” – in my case, this is true.  But unfortunately this can often elicit the same response as “I don’t want to” (i.e. you’re insane, whatever for, why not do something easier such as running a marathon(!!))

Interestingly, drinkers never have to justify why they imbibe a drink which, if it were discovered today, would probably be categorised as a class A drug.

Insight #2

Most drinkers are addicted to alcohol, to some extent.  Which is hardly surprising.  Alcohol is a highly addictive drug, hijacking pleasure centres in the brain in much the same way as illegal substances.  Most drinkers (including myself) find it testing to give up alcohol  for a long period of time.  Most drinkers have at one time or another drunk so much it’s made them ill.  Most drinkers would never consider going to a social occasion without drinking (unless they had one of the excuses above).  Finally, most drinkers would panic and feel extreme deprivation if they could never drink again. These are all addictive patterns.

You hear this dependency chatter everywhere.  Feeling stressed? ‘God I need a drink.’  A bit early in the day? ‘Is it wine-o-clock yet?’  Got a big presentation tomorrow? ‘I’d better stay in, I need a clear head’ – apparently going out and not drinking is a sheer impossibility for some.

Granted, there are some people (such as my other half) who can take or leave it; who drink mainly out of societal pressure; who will quite often start one and leave the rest of it.  But the majority of drinkers display addictive behaviours to some extent.

Insight #3

Alcohol is the only drug that kids are actively encouraged to try.  Responsible parents think (perhaps rightly) that a small wine with dinner or a sip of Dad’s beer will remove alcohol’s alluring mystery.  They are right to think that children grow up in a world saturated with alcohol, and that a life of teetotalism is very unlikely to hold much sway.  But it’s hard to imagine children being encouraged to have the odd cigarette to encourage ‘responsible’ smoking.

These are just a few of the things that struck me once I distanced myself from the drinking culture.  I’m sure there will be more to come over the next 730 days.

If you disagree with any of these or have any further comments you’d like to add, please feel free to comment below.

Incidentally, today is Day 1 of my two year adventure off the booze.