For the eight years since I graduated college, a pink, pixelated rash had been more or less taking up an annual residency on my face. Every time perioral dermatitis reared its ugly head (on, er, my ugly head), I’d pop into the dermatologist’s office for a few painful steroid injections, some medicated cream, and potentially a round of antibiotics.
These tactics usually forced my skin to return to its manageably flawed state within a few days. But eventually, in the winter of 2015, the shots and the creams and the pills stopped working altogether. Which is how I found myself one January morning shoving my coffee beans, chocolate bars, and half-opened wine bottles to the back of the fridge, in preparation for 30 days without my three favorite vices: alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.
After getting fed up with the crazy panoply of pills my dermatologist had put me on—none of which made any difference that lasted longer than a week—I eventually found my way to a more holistic practitioner who suggested that there could be something wrong with my liver.
The liver’s role in our digestive system is comparable to that of a sanitation worker. It processes everything—both emotionally and physically—that we put in our body, treating food the same as supplements, Stoli, and stress. In addition to sorting through what’s coming into the plant, this scrappy organ also manages the storage of sugar and its conversion into energy, produces a vast reservoir of the body’s proteins, regulates hormones, and cleans your blood. And when all the junk piles up, it doesn’t have as much manpower for all these other necessary chores.
As I later learned, when our main organ of detoxification isn’t working properly, it’s only natural for some of those excess toxins get eliminated through the next best escape hatch: our pores! This can cause sensitive skin like mine to react in horror and devolve into what my childhood idol Cher Horowitz would call "a full-on Monet."
Luckily, healing your liver doesn't require you to supplement with pills or juice cleanses. You can simply take away the three things that require too much of its attention: alcohol, sugar, and caffeine.
Alcohol is probably the most well-known toxin our livers battle on a regular basis. But it’s not necessarily the worst one, despite what many think. The issue really involves quantity: guzzling a vente macchiato or a liter of soda can overwhelm your liver just as much as flooding your insides with consecutive vodka tonics. Order a sugary, caffeinated rum and Coke, and you’ve got triple the trouble. The added sugar in fizzy drinks and packaged foods is really the liver’s cross to bear because it’s the only organ that metabolizes fructose. And though coffee can be friend or foe depending on the person, individual sensitivity depends in large part on how well it is metabolized by the liver.
True to this liver wisdom, simply removing alcohol, sugar, and caffeine from my diet for 30 days had a big impact on the health of my skin and my health in general. I share more about the process of how I did it in my book The Wellness Project, which also chronicles the 11 other monthlong health experiments I took on in an effort to heal my Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Here’s what I learned from this brief respite from my three biggest vices:
1. Less sugar equals more cooking.
Focusing on removing just "added sugar" from my diet had a dramatic halo effect on all my eating habits. Eighty percent of the supermarket aisle contains added sugar, and many restaurants were off limits as well. Southern food and Asian-American dishes are addictively sweet. Just look at the ingredient list of a store-bought Teriyaki or BBQ sauce and you’ll find sugar is the second line item (and potentially third, fourth, and fifth). When I ate out, I tried to stick to Mexican, Middle Eastern, Greek, or Indian food. But mostly, it reinforced the need to make meals myself by batch cooking on weekend afternoons.
2. Wine doesn't mean work is over.
As a self-employed private chef and food writer who works mostly from home (or other people's kitchens), wine was often an important part of bookending the workday. Especially on weekends when I often went straight from a catering or teaching gig to meet friends out on the town, I relied on alcohol to pull me out of my exhaustion. And even by myself, with an "office" that was in the near vicinity of my bed, couch, and kitchen, I thought a glass of wine was all I had to differentiate work from play. It was the equivalent of taking off my black blazer and sensible flats as I’d done during my time in the corporate world.
Without it, though, I found other ways to create this wind-down ritual. I also realized that it was spending time with friends and creating room for a post-work social hour that was really the important part of my wellness, not the bottles of pinot on the table.
3. Caffeine is a slippery vice slope.
Without the morning-after exhaustion from a night of drinking or the post-breakfast blood sugar crash from a fructose-laden bowl of cereal, I found I didn’t really need caffeine. Once the withdrawal was over, I woke up with the energy of three lattes and found my attention was more focused and thoughts clearer than the days when I drank them. Of course, once my other two vices were back in my life, I could feel the lure of that midday latte come back to haunt me. But I tried to remember that caffeine doesn’t defog your head; it just creates a cloud of dependency. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in that vicious cycle again. By keeping coffee off limits, it dissuaded me from ordering one more nightcap or crawling under the sheets past curfew.
4. There are healthier alternatives for rewarding good behavior or a hard day.
More so than the physical cravings, which were real and scary, I realized that I used sweets (specifically chocolate bars and macarons) to reward myself for either good behavior (the excellent article I wrote) or unfair misery (the five vaccines I had to get in my arm for a trip to Africa). I missed having something that felt like a treat, so I found myself spending my French cookie money on 10-minute foot rubs. This also applied to alcohol. Instead of unwinding with a glass of wine, I allowed myself to indulge in a relaxing bath at the end of the workday.
5. If you're going to drink wine, sip slowly.
One immediate effect of my vice detox was that I instantly became a wine snob. This was not something I would ordinarily want to be, but it wasn’t such a bad thing to embrace in the name of my health. In the weeks that followed my "retox," I made an effort to start drinking more for taste—to sip slower, and if that first mouthful caused my lips to pucker, I’d casually put down the plastic cup of five-buck chuck and proceed to socialize hands-free. It was a good way to make sure my more hedonistic cravings were actually bringing me conscious pleasure.
6. My world did not fall apart when I set health boundaries.
When I started this experiment—the first month of my yearlong wellness project—my biggest worry was how it was going to affect my relationships. Unfortunately, healthy choices don’t happen in a vacuum. And fitting health into your life becomes even more complicated when you share your life with another person. Though my habits as a late-20-something were a far cry from my days of slapping the Franzia bag in college, in many ways I still had an image of "The Cool Girl" in my head. I wanted to be the person who was carefree and down for anything, not the one asking the waiter whether or not their salad dressing contained any cane sugar.
What I learned, though, was that creating these boundaries wasn’t a deal breaker for anyone in my life. And had it been, maybe that would have been a deal breaker for me! Friends forgave, hosts adjusted their menus. Waiters gave me the dressing on the side.
7. It takes some extremes to reach a place of moderation.
Though I’ve welcomed these vices back into my life, feeling the true weight of their absence helped me commit to feeling better every day by limited them. The biggest barometer of my success was my face. I took a makeup-free selfie every morning and by the end of just 30 days, my skin was significantly calmer and on the way to being fully healed. Two years later, my skin has never returned to its previous state of chaos. Perioral dermatitis has never again threatened to become one with the pigment of my mouth.
If there's anything I've learned, it's that you can’t make healthy choices until you know what choices are healthy for you, and experiments are a key step in figuring that out for your personal body. And even when we know how to decipher the good from the bad, life is often much sweeter when we occasionally take a bite out of the bad anyway.