The Water of Life: Alcohol as Medicine Through the Ages
While no one knows exactly when alcohol was first produced, it was presumably the result of a fortuitous accident that occurred at least tens of thousands of years ago. However, the discovery of late Stone Age beer jugs has established the fact that intentionally fermented beverages existed at least as early as the Neolithic period around 10,000 years ago, and it has been suggested that beer may have preceded bread as a staple . Wine clearly appeared as a finished product in Egyptian pictographs around 4,000 BC, and residues of wine samples in Greece date to the same period. But alcohol was not consumed in the same way as it is today. In fact, in ancient times, alcohol was seen as an important medicinal ingredient and as an essential part of the diet .
Alcohol as Medicine
From the moment the first alcoholic beverages were discovered, man has used it as a medicine . Apart from the stress relieving, relaxing nature that alcohol has on the body and mind, alcohol is an antiseptic and in higher doses has anesthetizing effects. But it is a combination of alcohol and natural botanicals, which creates a far more effective medicine and has been used as such for thousands of years. It is the origin of the most famous toast, “Let’s drink to health”, which exists in many languages around the world.
One of the earliest signs of the use of alcohol as a medicine dates back around 5,000 years to a jar found in the tomb of one of the first pharaohs of Egypt, Scorpion I. With extremely sensitive chemical techniques, bioarchaeologists were able to identify the different compounds within the residue left in the jar. They found that the remnants contained wine, as well as a number of herbs known to have medicinal properties.
Evidence of wine drinking in ancient Egypt traces back at least 5,000 years. Source: Mariy / Adobe Stock
Wine was also a frequent component of ancient Roman medicine. As is well known nowadays, alcohol is a good means of extracting the active elements from medicinal plants. Wine was the only form of alcohol known to the Romans as distillation wasn’t discovered until the middle ages. Herbs infused in wine were a regular medicinal stratagem which would have a degree of effect given the alcohol’s ability to extract the active compounds of a number of herbs.
One of the most famous practitioners of alcohol-based herbal remedies was the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, whose own special recipe for intestinal worms was known as Hippocraticum Vinum. Hippocrates was making a crude form of vermouth in approximately 400BC using local herbs in wine, but herbal infusions took on a whole new level of potency once distillation was discovered.
Alcohol was the ‘Water of Life’
The spread of Christianity with the crusades from 1095 onwards brought knowledge about the art of alchemy and distillation from the early Arab scholars. The ‘Water of Life’ was being refined all over Europe (known as such due to it being safer to drink than disease-ridden water) and soon commercial apothecaries grew from the spread of the knowledge of distillation and botanical extraction selling both raw ingredients and herbal tinctures. Throughout antiquity, available water was polluted with dangerous microbes, so drinking alcohol, which involved the liquid being boiled or subjected to similarly sterilising treatments, was seen as being healthier and safer.
One of the earliest records of medicinal alcohol dating to this period comes from Roger Bacon, a 13th Century English philosopher and writer on alchemy and medicine. According to the translation (published in 1683) Bacon suggests wine could: "Preserve the stomach, strengthen the natural heat, help digestion, defend the body from corruption, concoct the food till it be turned into very blood." But he also recognises the dangers of consuming in excess: "If it be over-much guzzles, it will on the contrary do a great deal of harm: For it will darken the understanding, ill-affect the brain... beget shaking of the limbs and bleareyedness."
Alcohol as medicine in the Middle Ages ( public domain )
European colonization during the 15 th and 16 th centuries gave the apothecaries an abundance of exotic herbs, spices, barks, peels and berries to add to their medicine cabinets and from this point until relatively recently, a large percentage of medicines were made with an alcoholic base.
Gin is a good example of a spirit which was originally designed to be used as a medicine; the use of Juniper as a diuretic was believed to be able to cleanse the fevers and tropical diseases that the Dutch settlers were suffering from in the newly colonized West Indies. Many of today’s brands such as Chartreuse and Benedictine were born in the monasteries of Europe designed as stomach tonics and general elixirs.
Caution as Harmful Effects Realized
However, by the 18 th century, there were growing concerns about the more harmful effects of alcohol, including drunkenness, crime, alcoholism and poverty. In 1725, the first documented petition by the Royal College of Physicians expresses fellows' concerns about "pernicious and growing use of spirituous liquors". By the 19th Century, temperance movements began to emerge in Britain - at first some advised restrictions on certain drinks only, but over time their stance shifted to call for total abstinence.
An 1820 engraving warning of the dangers of alcohol ( public domain )
The irony is that we now live in an age where although alcohol is socially acceptable, classing it as ‘good for you’ is frowned upon and is a notion which seems to have been born from the development of modern medicine. Nevertheless, there still exists the view, and indeed scientific evidence, that alcohol in moderation has health benefits, such as:
- Reducing your risk of developing and dying of heart disease
- Possibly reducing your risk of ischemic stroke
- Possibly reducing your risk of diabetes
Old-fashioned pharmacies with their jars of coloured macerations died out in the early part of the 1900’s when science was able to synthetically reproduce the key properties of nature therefore no-longer needing alcohol as a base. Drug companies have also been keen to brush over the fact that organic-based medicine is free whereas tablets are not. You can’t patent nature, but you can patent pills.
Top image: A medieval knight drinking beer. Source: Warpedgalerie / Adobe Stock
By Joanna Gillan