The Water of Life: Medicinal Booze

Uisge Beatha

    It was called the ‘the water of life,’ uisge beatha, an ancient tonic distilled from barley, a potent potion for all ailments, pox to palsy, colic to colds. Irish monks discovered the process of fermenting the grain in the 12th century, and for hundreds of years people swore by the  medicinal powers of this distilled elixir that maintained vigor and prolonged life. Scots imbibed the remedy from childhood to deathbed. Such was the power of whiskey.

    Alcohol, of course, is not medicine. But it is interesting to read how it had been used in the past as a pharmaceutical agent. In the the late fifties, a 43 year old businessman was lying on a bed at the Karolinska Institute, crippled by frequent Stokes-Adams attacks. His doctors tried ephedrine, caffeine, isoproterenol, atropine, Pentymal, and digitalis. Nothing worked. In desperation they tried whiskey and champagne in small amounts, and in the midst of a fainting fit, whiskey revived the patient to consciousness. It didn’t cure him; and eventually his doctors fashioned a small puck-sized device that became the first implantable pacemaker.

    In the late 1800s, Carl vanNoorden, a prominent physician and researcher on metabolic and intestinal conditions, treated diabetics with a specific diet regimen called the ‘oat cure,’ He initially advocated treating impending diabetic coma with carbohydrates, but later discovered that a few days of fasting were more effective. On such days, the only food he allowed was alcohol – cognac, specifically, up to  200- 250 cc.

    Frederick Allen, an early diabetologist of the 1900s who developed the starvation diet for diabetes, addressed the role of alcohol in the dietary regulation of diabetes. He noted the historical adoption of alcohol “to support strength during fasting.” He cited earlier literature that indicated alcohol “not only produced no glycosuria but also might diminish acidosis.” Patients were given 50 to 350 cc of whiskey or brandy daily, “in small divided doses every hour or two, the limit for any individual being always short of producing subjective or objective symptoms.” Allen was careful to disfavor such an approach, saying that experience had discredited alcohol’s therapeutic value, even for the purposes for which it was intended for. He dismissed alcohol as ‘a decided comfort during fasting to persons already habituated to its use.” Allen recommended soup and coffee instead.

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