How Humans Have Used Alcohol as Medicine Throughout History
Anish Patel @ 2022-07-06 11:25:57 -0700
Drinking to one’s health is a practice that reverberates through history, all the way back to antiquity. And while today it’s a symbolic, customary gesture, there was a time when alcohol was used to promote health and even heal ailments. Egyptian and Roman civilizations steeped medicinal herbs into their wine, and water was often dosed with alcohol to kill harmful bacteria.
Of course, modern technology allows us to purify our water without accumulating a day-long buzz, an improvement that has helped us avoid the dangers of alcohol. But this wasn’t always so. Ancient history shows us that physicians, philosophers, and writers would often swear by alcohol-based elixirs to cure certain ailments.
This is a history of how alcohol has been used as medicine through the ages and how our perception of it has evolved as we’ve come to understand alcohol and our health. Today, we know that moderation is key. Let’s look at how we got here.
Alcohol as Medicine: A History
The Sleeve of Hippocrates
Hippocrates had a famous recipe for curing intestinal worms. Known as Hippocraticum Vinum, his recipe steeped cinnamon, ginger, and other local herbs into vermouth. This elixir was used to aid the digestive system and settle the stomach. But steeping herbs in wine isn’t unique to Hippocrates; it has been done all over the world. In fact, the name of Hippocrates’ special concoction refers not to the unique recipe, but to the device he used to strain the spices, also known as the sleeve of Hippocrates.
Today, ginger is still used to aid digestion. Scientific evidence shows us that ginger helps stimulate the digestive system and increase saliva flow. Some studies even suggest that it can ease nausea during pregnancy.
But wine? Not so much.
Medicinal Alcohol in England
England especially used alcohol as medicine. In 1683 Robert Bacon, an English philosopher and writer who focused on alchemy and medicine made a famous comment about wine. He also followed it with a warning. He said that wine can, “preserve the stomach, strengthen the natural heat, help digestion, defend the body from corruption, concoct the food til’ it be turned into very blood.” That’s one raving review for wine.
But even in the 17th century, Bacon recognized that moderation was key when it came to wine. And if you overdid it, you might be in danger. He said, “for it will darken the understanding, ill-affect the brain,” and even refers to shaking as an unwanted side effect of drinking too much.
The Invention of Gin
Gin was created to serve as medicine. In the 16th century, the Dutch started making what they called genever, a malt wine-based spirit. They added juniper berries to help the medicine go down a little easier.
The medicinal properties of juniper were no secret. Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides documented his use of wine-soaked juniper berries as early as 70 AD. Italian monks were also known to infuse juniper in their wine. All over the world, it was used to treat fevers and several diseases.
Today, gin is a recreational spirit known for its classic juniper aromas. Many gins incorporate a wide array of botanicals and spices.
Absinthe, like gins, has origins in medicine. In 1792 a French doctor living in Switzerland created absinthe to sell as medicine. It was believed to successfully treat epilepsy, gout, headaches, kidney stones, colic, and last but not least, intestinal parasites like roundworms. The key ingredient in absinthe is wormwood, a medicinal herb that Greek and Egyptian civilizations used to treat menstrual cramps and fevers.
But there’s a catch: wormwood is also responsible for the hallucinatory effects that come from drinking too much of it. These visuals are thanks to a compound called thujone, and because of it, wormwood was also believed to spiritually awaken those who drank it. Perhaps this is why absinthe is consumed ritualistically. To prepare the elixir, a special slotted spoon containing a sugar cube is placed over a glass. The absinthe is slowly poured over the spoon, dissolving the sugar.
Legend has it that absinthe eroded the mental health of both Van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway, so we don’t recommend using it as a tonic.
The bubonic plague was a horrible thing to live through. Medicine couldn’t stay ahead of it, but many physicians found a way to help numb the pain of those who suffered its devastating effects. An alcoholic beverage that also contained morphine was used to numb the pain.
And “plague water” became the name of the herbal-infused alcoholic beverages that medieval doctors recommended to ward off the plague. At the time, scientists believed that the plague was caused by “miasma,” or, foul-smelling air. The herbs, when soaked in alcohol, helped to correct this imbalance.
The herbs that were used to make plague water varied greatly, from wormwood to mugwart to walnuts and juniper berries. And some of those herbs have since been discovered to have damaging effects. For example, plague water was sometimes made with pennyroyal, an herb that causes liver damage.
Fernet for Cholera
Bernardino Branca was a self-taught herbalist in Milan who recommended Fernet Branca, an amaro, to treat an outbreak of Asiatic cholera. Fernet was marketed as a cure for cholera and menstrual cramps. When prohibition ended in the U.S., it was sold in pharmacies as a medicinal product.
Today, we know that there’s no scientific evidence to back this. But we still enjoy it recreationally for its wide range of herbs that make up its bitter, aromatic profile. The herbs used to make Fernet include Chinese rhubarb, angelica, and even chocolate. But the recipe is one of the industries’ best-kept secrets, having been handed down through generations.
You can still find snake wine on the streets of Taiwan; the benefits of drinking it have roots in traditional Chinese medicine. The elixir was created in China during the Western Zhou dynasty by infusing entire snakes into rice wine or grain alcohol.
The wine was considered to be invigorating with an array of spiritual and physical medicinal properties. Far-sightedness, hair loss, and libido were all treated with snake wine, and the essence of the snake is believed to impart spiritual benefits.
Interestingly, the snake venom proteins are typically made unfunctional during the infusing process, so it’s almost always safe to drink. Almost being the key word.
During Prohibition, there was one way to legally obtain alcohol: a physician could write you a prescription for whiskey or brandy. It was acceptable to treat cancer, indigestion, depression, and many other conditions with booze.
Around 15,000 doctors applied for permits to prescribe alcohol. Many of them turned their licenses into lucrative businesses, becoming the gatekeepers for sought-after booze between 1920 and 1933.
Whether it was actually being used medicinally or not, the government recognized doctor-approved drinking.
How alcohol became recreational.
The party had to end sometime. Developments in scientific medicine in the 1900s led to a cultural shift in how we viewed alcohol. In 1916, whiskey and brandy were removed from the list of scientifically approved medicines in The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America.
In the U.S. and Europe, the industrial revolution presented a need for more efficiency and less drunkenness in the workforce. It wasn’t good for the company's bottom line and it was outright dangerous for workers to be imbibing on the clock.
Alcohol started to gain a new reputation—one of violence, poverty, crime, and addiction. As early as 1725, the Royal College of Physicians reported about the dangerous side effects of alcohol, and by the 19th century, Britain began restricting its use.
How we view alcohol today.
Today, we have a more nuanced understanding of what alcohol does to the body and mind. For many people, drinking alcohol can lead to a dangerous dependency. But for people who can moderate their consumption, it’s perfectly acceptable and common behavior.
Still, science has shown us that alcohol can do some pretty severe damage to the body, and it certainly isn’t a sustainable form of medicine. Instead, drinking too much booze can lead to heart disease, liver disease, cancer, pancreatitis, weakened immune system, and it can even affect how your brain functions. As in all things, moderation is the key.
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