This section is from the book "Practical Dietetics With Special Reference To Diet In Disease", by William Gilman Thompson. Also available from Amazon: Practical Dietetics with Special Reference to Diet in Disease.
Alcohol is a substance produced by a process developed in certain sugar-yielding substances (such as grains, molasses, sugar cane, etc.) by the action of an organised ferment, the yeast fungus Saccha-romyces cerevisice. The chemical changes involved are complex, but the chief products are ethyl alcohol and carbon-dioxide gas. A little glycerin, succinic acid, and other bodies may be formed. The fungus is always floating in the air, so that when saccharine fluids are exposed to it the fermentation proceeds of itself. Two parts of sugar yield approximately one of alcohol.
Alcoholic drinks may be economically distilled from a great variety of cereals, vegetables, and fruits which contain sugar, or substances which can be artificially converted into it. There are no civilised races, and but few uncivilised or semicivilised people, with the exception of the Mohammedans, the northern Eskimos, and one or two other tribes mentioned below, who do not practise the distillation of alcohol in some form or other from the materials most available. For example, the spirit fermented from the potato is drunk in Lombardy, and that from rice in Japan, and the Fiji Islanders use a drink, "kava," made by fermenting with their own saliva the Piper methysticum. Even the stems of plants are used, as in the case of alcoholic beverages made from the sugar cane and the palm. The expressed juices of many fruits besides the grape and apple can be easily fermented into intoxicating drinks, and when the alcoholic fluid obtained lacks flavour it is often re-enforced by some organic extract.
The question whether alcohol is, properly speaking, a food, or is only to be regarded as a beverage and stimulant without power of nutrition, has given rise to much warm discussion, and it invariably plays an important role among the advocates of teetotalism. A full presentation of the alcohol question would be foreign to the limits of the present work, but the following general propositions comprise the belief of many authorities who have devoted careful research to this exceedingly important topic:
1. The use of alcohol in any form is unnecessary for the human organism in health. It does not exist as a natural product. The very lowest types of man - Australian and many Polynesian savages - know nothing of it, and drink only water and fresh fruit juice, such as that of the cocoanut, although they speedily acquire a fondness for alcoholic beverages when given them.
2. A large number of persons are undoubtedly better without alcohol and may prolong their lives by total abstinence.
3. The lifelong use of alcohol in moderation as an occasional beverage with meals does not necessarily shorten the duration of life or induce disease in some persons, while in others it undoubtedly produces gradual and permanent changes, chiefly of a cirrhotic character, in the blood vessels and in viscera, such as the liver and kidneys. These alterations, which may be slow and subtile in character, may not in themselves materially impair the health or cause an ultimately fatal result, but they tend to weaken vital organs and produce premature senility, so that if the patient acquire any severe disease - as, for example, an acute infection, like pneumonia, or a chronic one, like tuberculosis - the resistance of the body to the invasion of the disease is impaired. There is a prevalent belief that these cirrhotic changes are as much due to toxic products of indigestion caused by alcohol as to the alcohol per se.
4. There are many persons whose constitutional inheritance is such that they should be particularly warned against the use of alcohol, and in some such cases, as, for example, among those who are subjects of well-marked gouty diathesis, it is better that the use of alcohol should be imperatively forbidden.
5. The abuse of alcoholic stimulation is invariably injurious, although the extent to which evil influences become manifest depends upon the constitution of the individual, in connection with the two factors of heredity and environment.
6. There are a number of diseases in which the temporary use of alcohol is of positive service, and there are a number of cases in which it becomes a necessity in order to prolong life.
7. In many cases of malnutrition and malassimilation of food, alcohol is itself a food, and its consumption under proper direction results in an increase of body weight and strength and improvement of functional activity. These results are accomplished in part through the action of the alcohol as a definite food, and in part through its remarkable effect in force production. The latter is due to its own direct combustion, by which in chronic diseases and in critical acute and exhausting affections it spares that of the tissues of the body.
Although alcohol is such a strong force producer and heat generator, its effect in this direction is very soon counterbalanced by its stronger influence in lowering the general tone of the nervous system and in producing positive degeneration in the tissues. In the condition of health more food is usually eaten and more force is developed than is actually necessary for the body, and there is always a reserve supply of energy on hand which may be utilised for any extraordinary exertion, and hence the constant use of alcohol as a food or stimulant in health is both unnecessary and inadvisable. When alcohol is consumed in health in addition to a normal or excessive quantity of solid food by its more ready combustion it prevents the complete oxidation of the latter and favours the accumulation of suboxidised waste products, which are always harmful in the system. Excesses in eating are thus doubly aggravated by the effects of alcohol. It is the almost universal testimony of army surgeons and the experience of those who, like Greely, Stanley, and others, have led long and perilous exploring expeditions, involving great fatigue and unusual endurance, that muscular overwork and climatic hardships are much better endured if alcohol is entirely abstained from.
It has always been found in armies that when good food was at hand the issue of alcohol with the regular ration produced an increased percentage of sick days and of incapacity for work. Colonel Alfred A. Woodhull, Surgeon, U. S. A., writes me in regard to this matter: "I do not think that any of our medical officers would seriously advocate the issue of alcohol as a measure of health, but I believe that its habitual use during the civil war was prohibited for reasons of discipline, while it still might have been occasionally issued as if for health. On the rare occasions when it might serve a good purpose as a temporary stimulant after a long and wet march, the waggons would be in the rear owing to the same conditions that fatigued the men".
While all this applies to prolonged effort of any kind and to conditions where other food can be obtained and assimilated, it does not detract from the fact that alcohol is a most helpful food and stimulant in emergencies when other food cannot be had or when the body is temporarily endangered from acute disease and the higher rate of combustion in fever, or from failure to assimilate other nourishment.
Major Woodruff, U. S. A., says: "Spirits can never be used in the army as a regular issue; the practice is thoroughly vicious, and was virtually abandoned sixty years ago. On extraordinary occasions of great fatigue they are allowable in moderation. Under such temporary stimulation the men will brace up and perform the necessary work of making earthworks, etc., when without it they would be too exhausted to do anything. Without stimulation a man is not worth much after he has made a forced march of forty miles".
The problem whether the world as a whole is better or worse for the existence of alcohol aside from all ethical questions, and viewed merely from the scientific standpoint of the influence of alcohol upon mortality, is difficult of solution, for to offset the numerous cases of fatal alcoholism and the still larger number of cases of diseases which would not presumably be fatal without the existing condition of chronic alcoholic poisoning of the system, are very many cases among both infants and adults in which life is undoubtedly saved by the prompt resort to this food and stimulant and its energetic use. So long as man is exposed to hardships and conditions arising from improper and deficient food supply as well as to the numerous infectious diseases to which he is heir, alcohol must still be regarded rather as a blessing than a curse, for there is no form of stimulant and food combined or stimulant alone which, taken all in all, can be so completely relied upon in cases of emergency. Alcohol when taken alone will prolong life beyond the period at which it would terminate from starvation.