In the annals of history, humankind’s relationship with alcohol likely spans back to the days of Babylon or Mesopotamia, if not even earlier. In fact, it’s highly probable the very first chemical reaction comprehended by humanity involved ethanolic fermentation, wherein our ancestors realized the glucose in fruit and grains could be converted into unrefined wine and beer.
Indeed, the discovery of alcohol so closely coincides with the emergence of agriculture, some anthropologists argue it was a driving force worldwide for transitioning to agrarian-based civilization. And although alcohol has been part of the human experience virtually since the dawn of time, the two nonetheless share an uneasy relationship. This is especially apparent for those who believe it’s paramount to carefully consider and understand anything one ingests—be it food, drink or an idea.
Joseph C. Borrio is a Cicero, N.Y.-based DC who’s written extensively regarding the advantages and disadvantages of alcohol consumption, all through a chiropractic lens. He says moderate drinking is often cited as a key factor explaining the “French Paradox”—the phenomenon among the French where people suffer relatively low rates of coronary heart disease, despite a diet relatively rich in saturated fats
But in what ways can alcohol consumption help enhance health? According to Borrio, researchers at the University of Buffalo have discovered that moderate drinkers encounter a reduced risk of developing a cluster of disorders called “Syndrome X.” Accompanied by insulin resistance, this syndrome has been connected to heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Significantly, Syndrome X is characterized by abnormal levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar—all of which were found to be reduced through moderate alcohol consumption by healthy drinkers.
Research also has determined that drinks containing alcohol—especially varietal red wines like cabernets, merlots and shirazes—are filled with antioxidant chemicals called “flavonoids” that greatly assist in enhancing health. “These compounds destroy the free-radical molecules associated with cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders,” Borrio writes.
During a study published in a 1999 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, 21,537 male subjects were followed for a period of 12 years. At the study’s beginning, all subjects were without heart problems. After taking into account controls for various heart disease risks, Borrio explains, researchers determined that men who had two to four drinks per week experienced a 40 percent reduction in their risk for sudden cardiac death, when compared to others who rarely consumed alcohol or abstained from it. “In contrast, heavy drinkers who consumed more than five drinks a day exhibited an increased risk of heart maladies,” he adds.
Borrio also refers to another study published in the British Medical Journal in 2000, which enlisted the help of male subjects living in the Czech Republic. Subjects consuming between a half- and a full-liter of beer a day saw lower rates of heart attack, as opposed to nondrinkers. As with the previously mentioned study, Borrio notes, the alcohol’s preventative effects were lost when drinkers consumed much more often.
One to seven drinks (specifically wine in this case) a week also reduces chances for stroke, according to another study cited by Borrio. Researchers followed 13,329 women for 16 years, and subsequently determined participants consuming wine on a monthly, weekly or daily basis were subject to 16, 34 and 32 percent lowered chances for stroke risk, respectively. Similar protective effects for beer or spirits weren’t reproduced, however, and researchers found weekly beer intake even boosted stroke risk by nine percent.
Borrio also writes of a final study, presented at the World Alzheimer’s Congress, which says drinking between one and two alcoholic beverages a day might lower an individual’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The experiment followed 474 drinkers and non-drinkers—ultimately, it concluded subjects drinking one to two drinks a day enjoyed a 52 percent lower risk for the disease.
Although alcohol does seem to possess medicinal properties, Jon Carlson, C.H., believes it isn’t particularly unique in this respect. He says it does, however, offer a great deal of potential for the field of herbology. “Anything has medicinal value when taken at a particular dose,” he says. “But that’s also going to be dependent also on the person who’s taking it.”
As director and principal instructor of the Vitalist School of Herbology—a small school located in Ashland, Ore.— Carlson teaches herbology from the vitalistic perspective. The school’s curricula covers usage of therapeutic foods and herbs, primarily those grown in Oregon’s bio-region, and it encourages students to make their own medicines and use them in their daily lives.
In particular, Carlson says alcohol plays a number of important roles in manufacturing tinctures for producing herbal medicines. “Primarily, tinctures are a water-alcohol extract of a plant—it’s an extracting agent, or we could say it’s a solvent,” he explains. “And when we’re talking about alcohol in this case, we’re talking about organic, pharmaceutical-grade ethanol typically made from corn or grapes.”
As a solvent, the alcohol helps to extract the medicinal qualities of the plant and preserve them. Carlson says it’s useful in killing any germs, fungi or other microbes in the plant material. “Because we’re taking something that’s grown in nature, by definition it’s going to have various bacteria or mold spores on it,” he explains. “The alcohol is useful in sanitizing the preparation.”
Additionally, Carlson explains, it helps the body to deliver those chemicals rapidly and efficiently into the bloodstream without needing them to be processed in the digestive tract. “If you take a capsule, for instance, you have to digest those herbs to get the beneficial components out,” he says. “So those are some of the main reasons why we use alcohol, and in this context, the amount of alcohol is very small relative to the amount of alcohol people consume when drinking recreationally. We’re talking about [a fractional percentage of] the amount of alcohol in a glass of wine, for instance. That’s a totally different order of magnitude.”
With his own clients, Carlson says he doesn’t generally recommend alcohol as a therapeutic agent. “My goal is to determine the client’s relationship with alcohol to see if it’s a healthy one and understand how their body is metabolizing it,” he explains, “so I can determine whether [consuming alcohol is] something they can afford or whether that’s likely to be especially detrimental to them in terms of potentially aggravating their health conditions.”
Carlson believes developing a healthy relationship with alcohol is important, because otherwise it can be extremely problematic; not only because it’s addicting, but also because it can have negative consequences for the liver. “One thing many people aren’t aware of is that it slows down the metabolism of hormones and also histamines,” he says. “It becomes a significant issue for people with, for instance, hay fever or any type of food allergies, so it’s a matter of whether the benefits outweigh the detriments.”
According to Carlson, a healthy relationship to alcohol from a vitalistic perspective is essentially one where someone doesn’t show signs of serious physiological or emotional addiction to it. “They don’t have to have it every day—they can take it or leave it, and they’re able to enjoy it in moderation,” he says. “And often people have cyclical health problems, digestive disturbances or, as I mentioned, allergies, in which case it might be important to discontinue consumption of alcohol for a while. Obviously if a person doesn’t have a healthy relationship with alcohol, then they’re going to have a hard time doing that, and alcohol then becomes a factor that really exacerbates their condition.”
Although he says moderation may be slightly more variable than the “1-2-3 Guidelines” espoused by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Carlson says numerous genetic and environmental factors can also come into play when determining a healthy amount. “This particularly means people who aren’t optimally nourished, or have mineral deficiencies such as chromium, magnesium and B-vitamin—especially B1—because those are required to metabolize the alcohol,” he explains. “If you can’t metabolize that alcohol properly, it’s going to do more damage to the liver.”
While moderate daily drinking appears to be healthy for many people, Borrio also adds that some people should abstain from alcoholic consumption entirely—this is particularly important for people with a personal or family history with cancers of the liver, esophagus, stomach, cervix and breast, because these conditions can be exacerbated by alcohol’s effects.
By and large, though, both Borrio and Carlson seem to agree the greatest danger of any sort of “drink-a-day” practice is the risk of addiction. Borrio refers to a recent study conducted by the NIAAA revealing that among dependent drinkers, alcohol consumption is never preventative and likely increases the risk of fatality. “A good rule of thumb is that if you have any difficulty stopping after one or two drinks, the drink-a-day program isn’t for you,” Borrio adds.
Although moderate drinking may promote wellness, studies show heavy drinking and “binge” drinking can both act as serious catalysts for numerous conditions. So while light to moderate drinkers may arguably have the lowest risk of mortality—in some cases, even lower than non-drinkers—the heaviest drinkers carry the highest risk.