Alcohol is one versatile organic compound. It can be chugged in cans, gulped in glasses or squandered in red Solos. The ignorant suck it out of hand sanitizer, and the wise tape it to their bodies to pass security. They even give it out for free at church. But alcohol is also used in another, more important aspect—in medicine.
The history of medicinal alcohol is lengthy and complex. In 400 B.C., Plato prescribed drinking wine as being beneficial to a healthy and happy life.
Alcohol is mentioned in a medicinal context 191 times in the Bible. Historian W.J. Rorabaugh said that Americans in the 18th century thought liquor could “cure colds, fevers, snakebites, frosted toes, and broken legs, and…relieve depression, reduce tension, and enable hardworking laborers to enjoy a moment of happy, frivolous camaraderie.”
But in time, as alcohol became an integral part of modern medicine, many cultures, professional organizations and people continued using it in alternative means.
Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is any form of treatment that is not a part of standard care. While the benefits of this kind of medicine are well documented, the reason they are “alternative” is because scientists do not fully understand how safe many CAM treatments are.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted the annual National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) in 2007. Of about 23,000 U.S. adults interviewed aged 18 or over, 38 percent said they used some form of complementary or alternative medicine. Of about 9,500 children and teens, the use was recorded in 12 percent.
Though the umbrella of alternative medicine is large and covers a variety of practices, alcohol has a particularly special use in herbal medicines. In herbal lingo, alcohol is known as a “menstruum”—a liquid used to extract substances from plants. Alcohol preserves the herbal medicines well and is easily absorbed into the body to get the effects of the herbs.
Homeopathy, which involves absorbing harmful but diluted substances to trigger the body’s natural defenses, also uses the powers of alcohol. The alcohol extracts and absorbs drug substances better than water and preserves them.
Herbal medicines and homeopathic practices have indeed yielded health to the numerous who choose CAM. But simply drinking alcohol has also proved healthful to the relief of moderate drinkers.
The Catholic University of Campobasso in Italy conducted a study in 2010 which concluded that regular consumption of alcohol reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke of people who had already suffered one or the other. Similar effects were also shown in healthy people.
There is also good news for the men who tire of the Viagra and Cialis commercials. A 2009 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that alcohol drinkers were 25 to 30 percent less likely to have erectile dysfunction.
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of alcohol is its presence in everyday substances. There is some level of alcohol content in many medicines used by doctors and bought in stores.
Ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, is found in antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers. It kills most bacteria, fungus and viruses, especially on the hands. It is also used in the wipes that usually imply a needle is coming.
Laxatives, DayQuil and NyQuil and mouthwashes all have alcohol content. While it would be entertaining to see someone drunk off laxatives, medicines like these usually have fairly low alcohol contents, which is why they are safe for children.
So the next time you are holding a cold one in your hand, think about the numerous other capabilities alcohol has. It is trusted in the alternative and standard medical worlds, and has countless practical benefits from mere consumption. Bottoms up.