By Harriet Mallinson | Published on January 2, 2018
January is a time for new beginnings and, for many, this can include attempting to abstain from alcohol, at least for just this month.
Turning your back on booze has multiple benefits, from enabling a higher quality of sleep and awarding you with brighter skin to reducing the risk of liver disease and lowering blood pressure.
Team MACROS have decided to join the dry January bandwagon, so we spoke to Jon Wilks from Real Kombucha, a company which produces low sugar, low calorie, zero alcohol fermented drinks. Jon, now 40-years-old and based in Winchester, UK, gave up drinking 10 years ago, but it hasn’t been an easy road. Here’s how he mastered teetotalism.
Why did you give up drinking alcohol?
I found it was playing havoc with my mental health, which in turn had adverse effects on my physical health. When I was sober, I was generally hungover, and this led to me feeling very anxious all the time.
Eventually, when I was 29, the anxiety led to an arrhythmia – an irregular heartbeat – which led to an unhappy period of going in and out of a hospital having tests done on my heart.
The Real Kombucha team: from left to right, Adrian Hodgson, David Begg, Will Battle and Jon Wilks.
How did you motivate yourself to go teetotal?
I was the father of a beautiful baby boy, but I was a mess. I was a useless husband and felt like I was no help to anybody around me. The heart arrhythmia meant that I started to worry a lot about how long I’d be around for him, and a sense of your own mortality can be a pretty powerful motivation!
I think one of the key moments was when my son was about three years old and he came staggering over from the fridge carrying a bottle of beer. He handed it to me and said, “Daddy’s juice”. That wasn’t much fun.
What’s the hardest thing about giving up alcohol?
I wasn’t what many would consider to be alcoholic but my dependence on it for social situations was certainly damaging my health. So, for me, the hardest thing was adjusting to a social life that didn’t revolve around getting a bit tipsy (at the very least).
The hardest thing for Jon was adjusting to a social life that didn’t revolve around getting a bit tipsy.
What’s the best and worst thing about being teetotal?
I no longer had an arrhythmia and I progressed massively in my career within the months following giving up, probably because I was more alert and more productive.
The worst thing was definitely having to adapt to a new kind of social life. It’s lovely to suddenly feel calmer and more relaxed, but you do miss the feeling of being erudite and witty and all-powerful, and all those other things that alcohol can trick you into believing about yourself.
Have you found it hard to explain to people why you’re not drinking?
Yes, it’s one of the hardest things any person giving up drinking has to deal with.
I am involved in the marketing industry, and there has always been a big drinking culture there. If you don’t drink, sometimes it can be very hard to be a part of the so-called inner circle, although I’m sure it’s becoming less problematic as more and more younger people take higher positions. In my experience, the younger generation tend to be a lot more health-conscious, so not drinking isn’t a big deal for them.
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Do you feel you miss out on fun by not drinking?
It’s a while since I went through this, but I do remember a deep fear of missing out. Fortunately, I had a wonderful friend and regular drinking buddy called Dave Borgeson who spotted that I was struggling.
Initially, he was the only person not encouraging me to go back to the bar. Instead of insisting, “Just have one more night out,” Dave was saying, “You’ve done so well. Why spoil all that hard work now?” That became a kind of mantra for me over the first year of not drinking. Each extra day I went sober became a new badge of honor.
Luckily, Jon had a friend called Dave Borgeson who was the only person not encouraging him to go back to the bar.
Does it annoy you that so many soft drinks available are full of sugar?
Yes, it bothers me immensely, and it gives the lie to one of the great myths about giving up alcohol: that you’re bound to lose weight. You only lose weight if you stop drinking booze and start drinking water! Until recently, almost anything else calling itself a soft drink in British pubs was either sugar-filled or laced with artificial sweetener, Aspartame.
Having something decent to drink shouldn’t be so hard! Even if you’re not particularly health-conscious, the amount of sugar in most soft drinks makes them unpalatable after a single glass. Aside from anything else, it’s just boring.
What soft drinks do you recommend?
There are so few, and that’s why I got involved in Real Kombucha. The founder, David Begg, was very keen to address the lack of choice available to people who choose, for whatever reason, not to drink alcohol. It may be for a night, it may be for a month, it may be for 10 years – however long you decide to dodge alcohol for, you’ll quickly find that sophisticated, adult soft drinks not packed with sugar are far and few between.
Kombucha is a great choice because it’s extremely low in sugar, incredibly low in calories, packed full of probiotics and – to top it all off – if it’s brewed well, it tastes great. You can sup it throughout the evening in the way that you might swill an ale or a good wine. You can’t do that with a coke or an orange juice
Jon’s company currently offers three flavors of kombucha – a mixed yeast and bacterial fermentation of sweet tea.
What changes would you like to see in the drinks industry?
I think the key word is ‘choice’. I love that more and more independent brewers and craftspeople are getting a look in on the taps and in pub fridges. More of that would be great, as well as a wider range of options for people who don’t drink.
It’s worth remembering that the ‘people who don’t drink’ category doesn’t just include people who have struggled with alcohol. We’re also talking about pregnant women, designated drivers, and, increasingly, people who simply choose to abstain. We’re all lumped together in this huge umbrella category, but we all have our own reasons for not drinking. Perhaps the drinks industry can think in those terms, rather than bundling us all together and insisting we make do with sweet fizzy stuff.
What are your top tips for battling the desire to drink?
For me, there were two key things: the support of good friends and loving family, and the horror that I was endangering my life if I didn’t change. If you feel as though things have become too hard for you to handle, admit to yourself that you may need some level of help. Tell your friends and your family and go and have a chat with your GP. Support is definitely out there, but it’s down to you, ultimately, to make use of it.
What’s your advice for people considering dry January?
Don’t look at it as a whole month. It becomes harder that way. Look at it as a series of days and take it one day at a time.
Also, if you fall off the wagon, don’t assume that you’ve wrecked it. Just get back on the wagon and take it one day at a time again. No sensible person is going to judge you if you “only” manage 28 days of sobriety out of the 31 days in January. That’s still something huge to celebrate, and you’re bound to notice the difference in how you feel about yourself.