‘Wine is a food, a medicine, and a poison it’s just a question of dose’ Paracelsus, a Swiss physician, wrote that in the early 16th century. His observation could apply to all alcohol not just wine because in moderation it is beneficial to physical and mental health.
How often do we hear someone say about a drink that it is ‘for medicinal purposes only? We laugh and respond ‘Any excuse’. And yet throughout history alcohol has been used knowingly and sometimes unwittingly as medicine.
Alcohol used both internally and externally was a universal palliative in ancient societies. It was used as an anti-septic, for pain relief, to fight disease, and prolong life. It was also a medium for dissolving and dispensing medicinal herbs, resins, and spices.
Alcohol has a plethora of health benefits and is also nutritious. Fermentation is highly beneficial because the nutritional value of food is enhanced with increased amino acid and vitamin levels. Early hominids had their first experience of alcohol by eating fermented fruit that dropped from trees. Those augmented calories would sustain and help them to survive a hostile environment. Fermented fruit was easy to digest, it supplied nutrition and energy that caused the brain to grow larger.
It supports immune system function, and protects against pathogenic organisms. Those who drank alcohol were healthier, survived longer, and reproduced more – and that was not just the effect of the beer goggles!
One of the first purposely-made alcoholic drinks was wine. For ancient Greeks it was a panacea. Depending on the medical problem specific wines would be used to treat afflictions as varied as cancer, bad breath, and constipation. Later the Romans infused botanicals, herbs and spices with wine. They believed that wine had a magical ability to cure virtually all physical and mental health problems. If confirmation of that were needed in the modern age just look at the French who despite eating saturated fat in cream, butter, and meat are less likely to suffer heart disease than other nationalities in the West. Termed the ‘French Paradox’ regular consumption of red wine is believed to be responsible because grapes contain anti-oxidants and polyphenols, and the alcohol promotes ‘good’ cholesterol, increases coronary blood flow, and reduces blood pressure.
In ancient Egypt beer was used internally and externally to treat a range of ailments ranging from gum-disease to wounds when beer poultices were employed. Much of the grain in the Nile region contained Streptomyces from which some modern-day ant-biotics are produced. Beer was even used to treat piles, worms and other problems of the rear end. An unknown Egyptian physician wrote that ‘Hekt (beer) is the liquid of happy blood and body‘. There are so many health benefits to beer that I will write about it in a separate article.
If you are familiar with William Hogarth’s drawing of the 18th century dystopian London landscape called Gin Lane where Mothers’ Ruin was responsible for misery, degradation and destitution, it may be hard to believe that gin, or genever as it was first known was devised by a Dutch doctor. In 1650 Dr Franciscus Sylvius created a decoction by distilling malted cereal and juniper and used it to treat gallstones, kidney ailments, stomach problems and gout. He was not the first to employ distilled spirits to deliver curative botanicals. Distilled grapes and cereal became known as eau de vie or aqua vitae – water of life – and for centuries it was consumed for medicinal benefits. In medieval Europe monasteries became laboratories as men and women of the holy orders experimented with elixirs. Chartreuse is one such alcoholic herbal remedy still produced today.
Much alcohol and health research has been undertaken over the centuries and in the modern scientific era there a plethora of positive conclusions. Unfortunately the anti-alcohol lobby is vociferous and the media does not help by highlighting the anti-social aspects of drunkenness and the strain it puts on the police service and NHS. What they rarely focus on is the good news and the benefits that a moderate consumption of alcohol has for society. Most drinkers are not problem drinkers and they get the best out of alcohol rather than vice verse. As for the official guidance on what amount of alcohol is unhealthy, this varies depending on where in the world you are. The alcohol consumption guidelines specified by the British government bear no relation to what their counterparts in other countries advocate. This means there is no definitive answer.
A surprising champion is the United States Centre for Disease Control . It declares that moderate consumption of alcohol, not-smoking, a nutritious diet, and regular exercise are ‘four healthy lifestyle behaviours that exert a powerful and beneficial effect on mortality’. So to quote the Russian proverb: ‘Drink a glass of schnapps after your soup and you steal a rouble from the doctor‘. Or as the French would say over a glass of vino – à votre santé.