Thursday, September 07, 2006

Riding without Stabilisers

An interesting consequence of desisting from hammering your body with alcohol, is that you become far more attuned to the effect of other, less potent, drugs on your system. In this category, I'd include caffeine and sugar, both of which I've felt the need to control. Although I'd thought of alcohol as a narcotic, I now realise that for me, it was a stimulant. Need a bit of dutch courage? Have a drink! Need to clean the kitchen? Have a drink! Need to stay up until I've finished this piece of work for publication? Have a drink! The simple carbohydrate content of booze is such that it gives a quick shot of energy, raising the blood's glucose levels. In the short term, this can propel one to effort, and in the long term all this glucose gets laid down as fat - hence the beer belly.

In the months after I stopped, I found I was getting an unignorable craving for sweet food in the evening, and nipping out to get a chocolate bar. I think my body was expecting a glucose boost each night. This also explained why when I'd taken 2 hours to prepare a meal, swigging all the while, I never felt like finishing it - the booze had topped up my blood sugar level, reducing my hunger. Of course, I didn't knock back the booze all in one go, unlike a chocolate bar, or a bag of Margiotta's frankly irrestistable yogurt-coated peanuts. (Yoghurt? Aye, right - yoghurt-flavoured fudge more like). So perhaps the way to keep my glucose on a even keel is to nibble fruit and nuts throughout the evening, just as I used to sip at a drink all night, never feeling full, but never feeling hungry, either.

And then there's coffee. If carbohydrate food feels like booze, then coffee feels more like cigarettes. Some people need one first thing in the morning, some after a meal. Some don't touch it for months, and just have one as a treat now and then. I was in the last camp (ha!) when I dried out, but found on a week long residential course, where complementary fresh-ground coffee was on hand between every classroom session, that I began putting it away in pints. I think I'd been avoiding it, because one of biggest fears of life after alcohol was difficulty sleeping, thinking that the restless nights I'd always experienced after a rare dry day would be the norm. In fact, they were a withdrawal symptom which I recovered from very rapidly. I learned I could drink coffee in the evening and still be asleep within minutes of going to bed. It seemed to give me that jolt to help finish doing something in the evening that a strong cocktail had done before.

I learned quite soon that the cumulative effects of too much coffee are extremely uncomfortable: you feel exhasted, yet restless. The only way to stay awake was to have more. All my bodily fluids smelled of coffee. I was more than a little hard to live with. Oh dear. Coffee had taken the place on my back of alcohol. It took some withdrawal, too - take it way too suddenly, and I'd be lethargic and get severe headaches. I stayed off for months, and stuck to Earl Grey or herbal tea.

During my leg injury in Spring 2005, I'd read a piece in Men's Health that advocated targeted used of coffee as a pre-exercise stimulant. Drink coffee before you work out, and at no other time, they said. The day I decided that the way to get out of my post-injury stiffness was to exercise through it, I remembered the piece, and downed a large espresso (and some Ibuprofen!) before heading to the gym. It worked: I was energised and started a path of training that I'm still on. I've tried having more than one coffee a day, but find that going beyond this limit means I get addicted again, and into the state of needing coffee to stay alert.

The one day a week I don't have an espresso (because caffeine and yoga don't really mix), I find I am drowsy and lethargic by 11am. That serves as a regular reminder that it really is a drug, which I'm using to motivate myself into getting out of bed in the morning, and to enhance my performance at the gym.

I'm think I'm slowly coming round to the Buddhist stance regarding stimulants, but I won't throw away our cafetiere just yet.

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