History 101: Alcohol As Medicine Throughout The Ages

Though alcohol is typically drunk today for its recreational value, it was used for its medicinal properties back in the day. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol has more use than just getting people drunk.

Even today, alcoholic beverages are consumed for other reasons than getting drunk. It is commonly used in religious and spiritual rituals like transubstantiation, which utilizes pure grape wine. In this Christian ceremony, also known as communion, the wine is believed to convert to the blood of Jesus Christ. 

In Buddhism, some monks encourage mindful drinking, which is used to clear the mind and open up your inhibitions instead of clouding them.  

All around the world, different cultures have found different ways to utilize alcohol. Some of these practices are meant just for fun, while others are used for spiritual purposes. Even more of these customs are used to improve health. You might not think of alcohol as healthy, but it can be used as a medicine in some cases. 

So what kind of drinks were used medicinally? And where did they come from? This article discussed how people have used alcohol as a medicine in the course of history.

Ancient China’s rice wines

The first use of alcohol as medicine comes from northern China in 7000-6000 BCE. In terms of alcohol production, clay casks from this time are the oldest piece of history. 

These casks were filled with rice wine, flavored with honey and grapes. It was believed to have various health benefits, depending on the patient’s sex, age, and condition.

Even today, there are a ton of alcohol-based herbal remedies sold in China. Generally, these medicines are thought to warm and revitalize your blood.  

Some Chinese medical literature even recommends the drinking of alcohol as a treatment for certain conditions. They also discuss its side effects and potential for abuse. 

Pharaonic Egypt’s beers and wines

The next oldest record of alcohol being used as a medicine dates back to 3400 BCE in Pharaonic, Egypt. The first brewery is believed to have been in Nekhen, also known as Hierakonpolis.  

Brewing was perceived as an art in ancient Egypt, especially the brewing of beer. The ancient Egyptians loved their beers so much that they considered it a “necessity of life.” 

This affection for alcohol was sparked by certain religious beliefs within the culture. Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of life and death, was also the god of wine. Alcohol was embedded into the history and culture of these people. 

The ancient Egyptians viewed alcohol as a medicine as well. For instance, many Egyptians from this time considered wine a potion of rejuvenation. 

Classical Greece’s wines

Even today, wine is known for its abundance of health benefits like lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. Before wine was as widely researched, the ancient Greeks used it as a medicine. 

In Classical Greece, this drink was used as a therapeutic agent for the body and the mind. It was commonly prescribed by physicians for both men and women. Wine was used to treat everything from bad breath to wounds to cancer. 

The effectiveness of a particular wine was determined by its color, provenance, taste, consistency, smell, and age. 

The famous physician Hippocrates described wine as an appropriate medicine for several conditions besides those that cause “an overpowering heaviness of the brain.” During his life, Hippocrates wrote extensively about the positive and negative effects of alcohol consumption. 

The Roman Empire’s wines

The Roman Empire was also fond of their wines. Their use of wine as medicine was shaped by Greek and Etruscan customs. 

Most notably, The Romans used a blend of wine and frankincense or myrrh as a form of anesthesia before surgery. This practice is thought to be derived from Talmudic medicine.  


The Middle Ages’ water of immortality

During the Middle Ages, brewing was a sacred practice for monasteries throughout Europe. Beer was the most prevalent drink among Europeans at the time. 

Between 1000 and 1500 AD, it was reported that the average adult in England consumed about a gallon of beer a day, partially because it was often safer to drink than water. 

Physicians and monks clung to their belief in the medicinal elements of alcohol. In 8th century Poland and 9th century Russia, vodka was considered aqua vitae, or the water of life, an archaic name for a strong alcoholic spirit. 

The vodka in these times was made from fruit, herbs, spices, wormwood, acorn, birch, chicory, sorrel, dill, horseradish, mint, and lemon; far from what most vodkas contain today. 

The famous alchemist Arnaldus de Villanova stated that aqua vitae was a “cure for all ailments.” Strong liquors were thought to fight against fevers while preventing the plague

In his book, “Liber de vinis,” Villanova writes that alcohol can help ease the heart, heal sores on your head, and improve digestion and appetite while protecting against yellow jaundice, dropsy, breast pain, and gout. He also says that it can treat diseases of the bladder, induce courage, and enhance memory.

Mesoamerica’s pulque, mead, and maize Alcohols

In Mesoamerica, it is believed that the Mayans made mead and maize-based alcohol starting in 1000 BCE. The alcohol was brewed with cacti, fruits, and bark, which is confirmed by surviving artifacts. 

The making of these alcohols is described in several written records from Spanish conquistadors. It is theorized that the medicinal use of alcohol in post-Columbus America was taken from Mesoamerica.

In 1603, Sir Walter Raleigh, a prisoner of the Tower of London, brewed an all-encompassing drink containing over 40 plants and herbs he had brought back from the Americas. This “elixir of life” was apparently praised by the Queen of Denmark. 

England’s Gin craze

In the 18th century, England experienced a gin craze. Thanks to the introduction of distilled juniper water from Holland’s King William of Orange, gin became an instant hit. 

In this period, gin was used to treat stomach pain, gout, gallstones, and overall maintenance of the kidneys, liver, and heart. 

Its credibility as medicine was backed by an Irish physician, Dr. Robert Bentley Todd. He alleged that gin helped with the body’s natural healing processes.

Unfortunately,  a lot of people weren’t aware of the adverse effects of drinking alcohol daily. The affordability and accessibility of gin in Britain led to a dramatic spike in addiction among the general public. 

This issue was viewed as a public health crisis, similar to the opioid epidemic that we’re experiencing today. In response, the British government instituted a string of new laws, including the 1726 petition by the Royal College of Physicians and the 1736 Gin Act. So, while alcohol as medicine certainly has its upsides, we see some downers as well. 

Paris’s absinthe

The use of the ingredients in absinthe as medicine goes back to ancient Egypt, where wormwood was thought to be a healing ingredient. Wormwood is a moderately poisonous plant that grows natively in Eurasia and North Africa.  

Absinthe is rumored to have been created in France in 1792 by a Swiss physician named Dr. Pierre Ordinaire. It was especially popular in Paris. 

This 120-proof alcohol originally became popular in the 19th century Parisian artistic society. This drink is appropriately nicknamed “The Green Fairy.” This name stems from its vibrant, green hue. 

From a medicinal standpoint, the main reasons for drinking absinthe were to relieve indigestion, intestinal worms, rheumatism, and pain from childbirth. 

Despite the popularity of this drink, it was banned across Europe from 1910 to 2005. Upon drinking absinthe in excess, many Europeans suffered from “absinthism,” a painful condition that causes tremors, convulsions, and hallucinations. 

The existence of this disease was never backed by science, though. After years of reflection, it is now believed that these people were most likely just suffering from the normal effects of alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal. Absinthe does not contain any active hallucinogens or psychoactive substances besides ethanol, which does not cause the symptoms above. 

The takeaway

As you can see, alcohol has a very long history as a medicine. Who knew it could be such a versatile remedy?

In nearly every corner of the world, alcohol has been utilized for its medicinal attributes. From ancient China to the Roman Empire, drinking alcohol has proven useful as a health aid. Though many of these medical strategies are outdated, these health advancements helped develop the alcohol industry into what we know and love today. 

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Different sorts of wine in various glasses on table in sunlight