Life after #DryJanuary - What would Homer do?

Life after #DryJanuary - What would Homer do?

28 Jan 2020

Duffless is a Season 4 episode of The Simpsons, a classic from the show's glory days. When a drink-driving caution prompts our favourite nuclear safety inspector to go 30 days without his beloved beer, physical, social and psychological torment ensue. It's pretty funny.

In the final chapter, Homer's hand shakes as he takes a red marker pen to his calendar. Ceremoniously, he puts a cross through the last day of his Duffless ordeal. He made it. And in making it, he plans an epic blowout.

“Send the kids to the neighbours, I'm coming back loaded,” he tells Marge.

But she then drops some truth bombs. During his abstinence, Homey lost weight and saved cash. He stopped sweating; he developed patience, perspective and attentiveness. He became a nicer person.

Back to booze

Somehow, Homer avoids immediately armageddonning his sobriety. Instead he keeps a beer on ice and goes for a sunset cycle with his wife. Sharing a pink two-wheeler with a basket, the pair sing show tunes as they head for the horizon. It's incredibly cute.

Life's not like The Simpsons. Just as obese gentlemen don't travel into space, many of us won't be able to stay sober-strong like Homer in Duffless. Few will resist the urge to go full-scale blowout when 30 Dry January days come to an end. The 2020 calendar is almost teasing us.

January 31st falls on a Friday. So when the clock strikes midnight – and probably before – the Dry January brigade will be liberated; a whole weekend of blowout awaits. The timing is poetry. What better moment for abstainers to celebrate a job-well-done by ritually reconnecting with alcohol. By getting drunk.

In what'll be a rare moment of national togetherness, we'll christen February by pounding booze like it went out of fashion. After all, we've earned it …

Dry January Success

Dry January or Veganuary are different beasts from a New Year's Resolution. The human condition is much more accepting and prepared for short-term projects than long.

Human beings are results-orientated creatures, we need rewards and finish lines. With the vocal camaraderie of #DryJanuary online, participants had a strong and consistent wave of motivation on which to surf. Quoting YouGov research, the Daily Mirror reported mid-month that some 70% were still on-track for a sober January.

By contrast, New Year's Resolutions are open-ended, infinite journeys of wholesale change. We set moonshot goals with no tangible finish line; we underestimate the challenge and, without sufficient motivation or support, we fold. That's the story for more than 19 in 20 of us.

But while New Year's Resolutions and Dry January play to our psychology differently, one thing binds them. The rebound.

The 'rebound effect'

The 'rebound effect' has been proven time and again. Once a project comes to an end, the participant instinctively wants to compensate. For example, ask your nearest January vegan what's for dinner on February 1st.

In dieting, they talk about  yo-yoing, a simple term which masks the complex intersection of physiological and psychological.

Say a person engages with a crash diet, the kind which requires they remove a food group. Fat or carbohydrate for example. For several days the body is in pain. Its regular and consistent balance of macronutrients has been disrupted. The body is confused. Headaches, hunger pangs, tiredness, irritability … every dieter knows the pain.

But soon after the initial shock, the body begins to adapt. Absent one major food group, the gut improvises by grabbing whatever nutrients it can to fill the void and continue business-as-usual. If we eliminate carbs, for example, the body looks to other sources for fuel in a process called gluconeogenesis.

Fast forward and the body is working well in its new rhythm when suddenly the diet ends - and two things happen: 1) the dieter feels entitled to reward their efforts with lovely fat or snuggly carbs. 2) the reprogrammed gut struggles to process macronutrients that are now alien.

In other words, we reward ourselves with heavy food that the body is unfit to process. The excess sticks around and the weight comes back. What was the point of dieting in the first place?

The physiological booze boomerang

After completing a month of hard-fought sobriety, Homer's instinctive response was to go out and get leathered. This wasn't far-fetched storytelling but a true depiction of how humans behave.

Those who have nailed Dry January in the past can probably testify: the next month gets pretty wet. That's psychology. But what of the physiology of giving up booze for an extended time?

Like dieters, swearing off booze shocks the body into a system reboot. The person who puts down the drink on January 2nd isn't the same person on February 1st. For starters, our tolerance isn't what it was, and an out-of-practice gut will struggle to boot back up to cope with alcohol.

There's pain, and there's also weight gain. There are 9 calories in a gram of fat and 4 calories apiece in grams of protein and carbohydrate. Fat, carbs and protein all contribute to the body: they give us energy, they help us sleep, they grow our muscles, they oil our hormones, they sharpen our mental and physical processes, they power up our brains. They take care of vital bodily tasks.

Conversely, alcohol packs 7 empty, deadweight calories per gram – nearly twice the energy content of protein or carbs. And not only does it do sweet nothing for the body, alcohol blocks and dampens the benefits of other macronutrients. It is a net drain. 

After a month without the sauce, glugging it back rebound style will send the body into a sort of meltdown. It won’t know what to do.

Those who went dry for January probably experienced several weeks of quality sleep, consistent mood and energy levels, and possibly even some weight loss. Like Homer, perhaps patience and perspective improved too.

It's a tremendous boost for our physiology - alcohol wasn't there to impede the body's natural rhythm, so cue a month of uninhibited replenishing, rebuilding and revitalising. Pouring booze back in like it's 2019 risks reversing gains made. 

So as we stand at the precipice of February, and all signs point to blowout, let's see if we can be more Homer. Let's  think Duffless … and reconnect with booze a little more gently.

A bike ride into the sunset may be a great place to start.


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