This section is from the book "Materia Medica: Pharmacology: Therapeutics Prescription Writing For Students and Practitioners", by Walter A. Bastedo. Also available from Amazon: Materia Medica: Pharmacology: Therapeutics: Prescription Writing for Students and Practitioners.
The beer-drinkers' adipose is well known. In the malt liquors there is much nutritive albuminous and carbohydrate material in addition to the alcohol. A liter of beer containing 5 per cent. by volume of alcohol would contain 50 c.c. (40 gm.) of alcohol, representing 284 calories, and extractive matter representing from 200 to 275 calories, according to its "body." Hence a liter of beer may furnish 500 calories, or as much as one-sixth of the necessary food requirements of a man at work.
An interesting theory, held by some biologists, is that the pancreas, by means of a ferment, converts carbohydrates into alcohol, which is then oxidized in the tissues to produce energy. Fat is deposited in the tissues as the result of an intracellular synthesis of alcohol and a fatty acid.
Lee and Salant found that in frogs, while weak alcohol has little effect on striated muscle, 10 per cent. alcohol is a direct stimulant. In 25 experiments on the contraction of a curarized frog's gastrocnemius the average increase in the number of contractions in the alcoholized frog was 59.5 per cent., and the average increase of total work done by the muscle was 40.4 per cent. Their conclusion was that alcohol in moderate quantities results in quicker contraction and quicker relaxation of the muscle, with a larger number of contractions, increased amount of work in a given time, and delay of fatigue. In these cases, of course, there was no supply of nutritive material and the alcohol may have served as food.
Human ergographic and dynamometric experiments indicate that small quantities increase the power for muscular work for a short time, but that fatigue sets in more early.
Hellsten (1904) showed that 10 gm. of alcohol given to a non-drinker increased the muscular power for the first half-hour up to 9 per cent., the best work being done during the second period of fifteen minutes; in the third period of fifteen minutes the muscular power decreased to 6 per cent. below normal. After moderate fatigue the primary increase after alcohol was more noticeable. From his experiments he concluded that there was some primary stimulation either of the motor centers or muscle, and that in fatigue, or when nutritive material was lacking, the effect of the alcohol as food enhanced the stimulation. The subsequent decrease in muscular power is essentially due to the depression of the motor centers of brain and cord.
Schnyder and Dubois (1903) compared alcohol with tropon (a protein food). From over 400 ergograph experiments they concluded that alcohol in small quantities has a favorable action on muscular power when it is taken by a fasting person who has to some degree exhausted his reserves by active work. But that because of the central depressant effect the increase in muscular power is below that from an ordinary food substance of the same caloric value; and that, if the individual has already an adequate food-supply, the late depression of muscular power may be the only manifestation of the alcohol.
It is evident from such experiments that any good effects on muscle and work depend not on stimulation, but on nutrition.
Tests with soldiers made by Leistenstorfer over a number of days, have shown that, in a regiment on the march, provided that all were well fed, those companies which received no alcohol during the day were able to march further or were in better condition at the end of the day than the companies which received alcohol. If they were underfed, those receiving alcohol in the ration could endure the most.
Zuntz and Schumberg made a study on the temperature of marching soldiers, and found that while normally they could carry an average load of 22 kilograms and march 15 to 20 kilometers without noticeable rise in body-temperature, yet from the same work, after a drinking-bout, the temperature rose to from 102.70 F. (39.30 C.) to 105° F. (40.50 C). Parkes speaks of a march of 400 miles across the Egyptian desert by an English army in 1800. The fatigue of the march was probably never exceeded by any army. No spirits were served, and the men kept in strikingly good health. One day some of the soldiers obtained some date brandy and became intoxicated, and during the following three months a considerable number of these men were in the hospital.
We might state our conclusions from the scientific evidence as follows:
Alcohol cannot build up tissue, but it can spare or replace fats and carbohydrates in the food, and can prevent excessive protein destruction (tissue waste) for a time. It may, therefore, serve as a useful food in some conditions of great exhaustion or waste, where the tissues would otherwise be broken down to furnish the energy to maintain life. But in any case alcohol cannot be a profitable food for any great length of time, because of its central nervous effects, and because it causes too marked wear and tear on the body structures. It is probable that in most conditions any sugar will be a better food.
The use of alcohol as a source of energy to the body may be aptly compared with the employment of sea-water in a boiler to produce steam. It will produce the steam and run the engine in an emergency, but if its use is continued, will eventually cause the engine's destruction.
Alcohol, therefore, under special circumstances, may have a food value; but it should not be classed among the foods, because its property of yielding energy is not its dominant property, and is overshadowed by important pharmacologic actions, viz.:
2. Its destructive action upon the body tissues.
3. Its narcotic action.
4. Its proneness to result in the formation of a vicious habit. All these dominant properties place alcohol among the powerful drugs and poisons, rather than among foods.
As a matter of fact, nowadays, alcohol to sustain one during work is very little employed. Persons who are to undergo severe mental or physical exertion prefer to refrain from alcohol before or during the effort, for they find that without the liquor they can do their work better, and keep at it with a clear mind for a longer time. If a strain is prolonged, however, and keenness of intellect is not the first consideration, as in the case of a mother worn out with anxiety about a sick child, a little alcohol may have a valuable sustaining power, for it supplies readily absorbable food that requires no gastric secretion for its digestion; and, in addition, through its narcotic effect, tends to lessen excitability and the wear and tear upon the nervous system.
After, but not during, a severe exertion or strain an alcoholic drink may be of benefit for three reasons: (1) Its food value; (2) its immediate reflex exhilarating effect, and (3) its subsequent narcotic or sedative effect, which promotes the feeling of relaxation and comfort and rest.