Detoxing and abstinence, a considered view

Every now and again I hear on twitter that a wine trade colleague is having a break from the booze. Frequently, this is badged as ‘detoxing’, and is accompanied by a peculiar and rather frightening diet.

Now, unless you are caning rather too much wine than is good for you—and just what this harmful level might be is unclear, and is likely to differ among individuals—detoxing doesn’t make much scientific sense.

Our bodies are continually detoxing. It’s why we have a liver and two kidneys. Drinking mineral water for a week and having a colonic irrigation to remove small undigested bits of meat and childhood-ingested marbles is not going to flush out ‘toxins’ from our body, because unless we are gravely ill, our bodies are pretty effectively detoxified anyway.

But I can see that there is some value in detoxing, even if it doesn’t make medical sense.

That value is in the symbolic act that changing our diet for a while represents. Cutting out certain foods and drinks for a period signals two powerful things. First, it shows we are able to change; we still have control. A period of temporary change such as this acts as a punctuation mark in our lives.

Second, the outward act of the detox has a symbolic value, and can precede and mirror necessary internal changes. It is made more powerful because it concerns food and drink, which is taken into the body, thus reaching inside us. In a sense, it is an outward sign of a spiritual act, although I hesitate to use the ‘s’ word because it is so polarising. What I mean by this is that we are more than just physical beings; we have an internal life that transcends our physical make-up, however you want to term this.

For this reason, I think that we shouldn’t dismiss the notion of detoxing, even if it has a fragile (or false) scientific basis.

Personally, I like to view wine drinking as healthful. For this reason, I don’t see the need to cut it out altogether, as if drinking wine were a harmful act in which the pleasure outweighs the harm, so we tolerate that harm. By all means, reduce consumption – perhaps to a glass a night – during a detox routine, but then savour this glass as something healthy, natural and life-enhancing.

10 comments to Detoxing and abstinence, a considered view

  • Well said. Though I will add there is nothing wrong with abstaining from a health point of view. It might not “detox” you, but it can also provide some clarity. Personally I’ve found I self detox now that I have found good whole leaf teas. The range of flavors and intellectual excitement behind them makes taking a day off of other things easy, if not desirable!

  • Tim Carlisle

    I think it depends. I tend to only drink Thursday – Sunday with a view that working in the trade it would be very easy to slip into drinking every night, and that level of drinking might firstly not be good for me physically and secondly it may become an addictive problem (I have family history of this and so perhaps am sensitive to it) In that sense stopping is as you say proof that you are still in control.

    What is also true is that loading your liver with alcohol repetitively causes it to become inflamed and damage can occur – but your liver is able to grow and recover and so a period of low or no alcohol can help that to happen by reducing the workload on it but this tends to be necessary in people who are drinking more heavily. So if you drink half a bottle or more of wine every night that is probably keeping your liver working at less than optimum and causing some damage.
    Some of this damage is ‘fatty liver’ which in itself doesn’t cause major problems and goes undetected but it can lead to hepatitis which in turn can lead to Cirrhosis. To this end it’s important that we allow our liver to recover somewhat – this is done in two ways. One – prevention – drink less but more importantly drink slowly – the damage is caused by high levels of alcohol flowing in blood through your liver in one go not by low levels. Allow you blood alcohol level to drop before taking on more alcohol – ie don’t overload your liver in one go. Two once damage is done – and for most people some damage is already there, allow your liver to recover and mend itself. It can shed itself of the fatty deposits which you want to happen to prevent more serious problems that can occur.

  • I agree with Father Jamie’s spiritual context and Tim’s biological one. If you drink sensibly, regularly, your liver’s ability to handle the ethanol improves. When you abstain, the liver enzyme production decreased to such a low level, that when you go back to drinking, you are actually making your liver work a lot harder to get back up to speed than you did before abstaining, even with the same moderate amount of alcohol. If you went on bender after a detox, the effect would be multiplied.

  • Very interesting post and comments. I will bring this matter up at lunch today, where three of us (winelovers all) will probably drink 2 bottles of wine. I don’t know what to think! I believe that a little bit of wine every day is good for you but too much wine every day is bad for you, and those limits will be different for each individual. How to find out that limit? Is there not some kind of test?

  • Yes Fabio, there is a test. You are taking the test at lunch today.

  • I see that this topic has brought out the “regulars” – i.e. those of us who drink and comment regularly.

    I agree that “detox” is a good activity (in moderation) but the reason for doing it is wrong. I don’t really believe that “time off from drinking” makes us healthier in itself. What it does is to remind us that wine shouldn’t be consumed for the sake of it, it should be appreciated and respected, and to take an occasional break reminds you that it is something special.

    I do drink far too regularly, but hopefully not to excess, but we do have at least one night off a week to remind us not to automatically open another bottle just because it is dinner time.

    As for health, you’d be much better off improving your body’s ability to deal with toxins by eating more raw and healthy foods, and getting more activity, which WILL both have a beneficial impact … and if having a glass or two of wine makes you relaxed and happy so you enjoy your activity and meals, then you are “healthy”

    Good topic :)

  • I have in the past ‘detoxed’ by abstaining from food & drink, but this was more to do with excessive indulgence, usually around Christmas or other holidays. There is a saying in Japan ‘腹八分め’ which translates approximately to ‘stomach 80% full’ essentially, moderation. I think that is the key along with what Robert says, eating healthy and staying active. Doing this alleviates the need for stopping ‘cold turkey’ and doing our bodies more harm than good.

    Greetings from the Mosel!

  • @Wineracked, well, I think we just passed the test! We did in fact get through two bottles of white wine over lunch and we are no worse for wear – my liver and kidneys feel just fine :)

    The first bottle was a white from Raventòs y Blanc, from Penedès (Spain), called “Perfum de Vi Blanc”. Quite acidic, but not very perfumed, despite the name, and very nice and pleasant and neutral, and just what one needs when sitting outside in the shade at +30ºC!
    The second bottle was a white Greek wine called “Tetramitos” made from a variety called Roditos, though not actually made in Rhodes. Beautiful! Much more body and intensity and aromas than the previous one, and it went really well with the ‘fritura mixta’ seafood + salad that we had for the main course. I posted a pic on FB.
    I still have my doubts about these healthy limits. For example, this aftenoon I’ll be going out to the vineyard to do several hours of physical work, and sweating like a pig, and drinking copious quantities of water – does that not contibute to cleasing my body of any excess alcohol that might be in there?

    @Robert, Yes, absolutly nothing wrong with taking one night a week off :) I also do so, and often succeed!

  • Really well said, Jamie. I appreciated your article. I’m in the detox camp and I do it 3 or 4 times a year for many different reasons. I’ll toss a few of them out here… I’ve been in the trade for a little while and it is far too easy to let my consumption levels creep up above what I think is healthy for me in both food and wine. Here is one example: I lived in Italy for 3 months 2 years in a row and was on a professional mission of discovery in food, wine and accommodations. Various regional tourism bureaus hosted me. I went to a large tourism conference with a post tour. Each of these was tailored to my needs in culinary/wine tourism aka I ate far too much and drank like the Italians. EEP! I also just recently relocated to San Francisco and have been eating and drinking my way around the city, not to mention visiting Napa and Sonoma—So much food, so much wine…TOO much sometimes and I need to keep it in check.

    At the same time, I have, for a long time, enjoyed a very healthy lifestyle. I like to run, I do yoga and meditate and eat ridiculously delicious, healthy foods at home. For me doing a detox is like hitting the reset button on my good habits. It also touches on so many of the items you mentioned like self-control/discipline as well as some of the more spiritual aspects of renewal.

    I also find that when I do a detox, that I end up keeping a lot of the good habits I re-establish while I’m in the process. I continue to eat more raw foods and drink more teas and other non-alcoholic beverages. It encourages a renewed sense of continued moderation so as not to undo all my good work and to maintain a healthy balance of eating very well and enjoying the delicious healthy benefits of wine in moderation. It takes a long time for the bad habits of over-indulging to creep in. When they do, I simply hit the “reset button”.

    Thanks for writing! Cheers!

  • Tim

    Excellent, well-written article. And thinking comments.

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