Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/November 1875/Is Alcohol a Food?

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CORN and wine were deemed indispensable to man from the remotest antiquity, just as beef and beer are so considered by the Briton; and scarcely a people has existed who did not possess a fermented liquor of some kind—all ascribing to it exalted virtue, such as befits the gift of the gods, as all believed it to be—not only from the bodily comfort and invigoration which it imparted, but also from its mysterious effects in the transient madness which it is capable of producing. Among all nations, consequently, wine, or alcoholic drinks of some sort, has always had its poets or its minstrels; and, had the ancients been acquainted with alcohol, or the essential product of fermentation as we know it, doubtless they would have made it the symbol of the soul, for which nothing could be more appropriate; for it is an invisible power hidden in a grosser body, which it influences in every part, and from which it finally escapes into the "heaven above"—gone forever! Nor is that all. The analogy may be extended to the qualities of that image of the soul, which are good and bad united, as in other mystic unions. Had the ancients possessed this knowledge of the distinct yet intimately combining principle, it might have given more significance to their devotion when they poured libations to their gods—but how much greater would have been their sense of awe and wonder, had they known what the physiologist knows at the present day! Let us glance at this truly mysterious agent in action.

Alcohol is ever ready to enter the animal system. It can be introduced under the skin or into a vein. Exalted by heat into the form of vapor, it may be inhaled by man or other animal, when it will penetrate into the lungs, will diffuse itself through the bronchial tubes, will pass into the minute air-vesicles of the lungs, will travel through the minute circulation with the blood that is going over the air-vesicles to the heart, will condense in that blood, will go direct to the left side of the heart, thence into the arterial canals, and so throughout the entire body.

Again, when taken in by the more ordinary channel, the stomach, it finds its way by two routes into the circulation. A certain portion of it—the greater portion of it—is absorbed direct by the veins of the alimentary surface, finds its way straight into the larger veins, which lead up to the heart, and onward with the course of the blood. Another portion is picked up by small structures proceeding from below the mucous surface of the stomach, and from which originate a series of fine tubes that reach at last the lower portion of a common tube, termed the thoracic duct—a tube which ascends in front of the spinal column, and terminates at the junction of two large veins on the left side of the body, at a point where the venous blood, returning. from the left arm, joins with the returning blood from the left side of the head on its way to the heart. It is so greedy for water that it will pick it up from all the watery textures of the body, and deprive them of it, until, by its saturation, it can take up no more, its power of reception being exhausted; after which it diffuses itself into the current of circulating fluid. When we dilute alcohol with water before drinking it, we quicken its absorption; and, if we do not dilute it sufficiently, it is diluted in the stomach by the transudation of water in the stomach, until the required reduction for its absorption is effected.

Now, after an investigation of a very elaborate character, Dr. Anstie and Drs. Thudichum and Duprè have satisfactorily proved that only a very small portion of the spirit which is taken into a living body is expelled out of that body as alcohol, in the secretions, and that there must be some other means by which the spirit is disposed of in the system. In one very remarkable and memorable experiment. Dr. Anstie gave a dog, weighing ten pounds, the liberal dose of two thousand grains of alcohol in ten days, and, on the last day of the ten, he administered ninety-five grains of the spirit as a final dose, and then two hours afterward killed the dog, and immediately subjected the whole body—blood, secretion, flesh, membranes, brain and bone—to rigorous analysis, and he found in the whole texture of the body only about 23½ grains of spirit. The other 1,976 grains had clearly, therefore, been turned into something else, within the living system.

These experiments directly refer to our query—the settlement of the food-power of alcohol as a doctrine of physiological science.

Before reasoning out this proposition, we must state certain facts which it seems impossible to reconcile with any other theory than that alcohol is a food. Dr. Anstie relates the case of an old soldier who was under his care at the Westminster Hospital in 1861, who had lived for twenty years upon a diet composed of a bottle of unsweetened gin and "one small finger-length of toasted bread" per day and who maintained the structures of his body for this long period upon that very remarkable regimen. Similarly an old Roman soldier admired by the Emperor Augustus, when asked how be managed to keep up such a splendid development, replied—Intùs vino, extùs oleo—"With wine within, and oil without."

Dr. Robert D'Lalor tells us that some thirty years ago, in foreign climes and in unhealthy districts, he lived for two years upon wine and brandy, with very little solid food; and at the end of the period was neither perceptibly poisoned, starved, nor emaciated. Laborers, navvies, coal-heavers, and others, who take no beer, eat nearly as much again as those who take a moderate allowance of beer. Dr. D'Lalor declares that he knows many vigorous and healthy men in London, not only waiters, potmen, publicans, and the like, but tradesmen and merchants, who eat but little solid iood, but have plenty of wine, porter, gin, etc.

Liebig stated that, in temperance families where beer was withheld and money given in compensation, it was soon found that the monthly consumption of bread was so strikingly increased that the beer was twice paid for—once in money, and a second time in bread. He also reported the experience of the landlord of the Hôtel de Russie, at Frankfort, during the Peace Congress; the members of the Congress were mostly teetotalers, and a regular deficiency was observed every day in certain dishes, especially in farinaceous dishes, pudding, etc. So unheard of a deficiency, in an establishment where for years the amount of dishes for a given number of persons had so well been known, excited the landlord's astonishment. It was found that the men made up in pudding what they neglected in wine. Finally, every one knows how little the drunkard eats.

Again, in cases of disease, there are numerous instances which it is difficult to refer to any thing but the food-property of alcohol. Dr. Anstie refers to one very instructive case of the kind, which also came under his care in 1861, and which obviously left a great impression upon his mind. A young man, only eighteen years of age, was so reduced by a severe attack of acute rheumatism, that he was unable to retain food of any kind upon his stomach. He was sustained for several days upon an allowance of twelve ounces of water and twelve ounces (¾ pint) of gin per day. His recovery under this treatment was very rapid and complete, and almost without any trace of the emaciation and wasting that ordinarily follow upon such a disease. The lad, previous to this illness, was of a strictly sober and temperate habit, and, during the use of gin, the abnormal frequency of the pulse and of the breathing came gradually down to the proper standard of ordinary health; and there was never at any time the slightest tendency to—intoxication which is a very notable point in such cases.

Dr. D'Lalor, before quoted, also mentions the case of a child only fourteen months old, suffering from inflammation of the lungs, and whose stomach could retain nothing but port wine. For twelve days it subsisted entirely upon wine; it was rapidly cured, with no wasting of any account; nor, although it drank large quantities of alcohol, was it ever intoxicated.

These cases are very important on account of their exceptional character; but they are quite in accordance with the well-established power of brandy and wine to sustain the life of sinking men in the critical periods of exhausting fevers; and they afford ground for the familiar and popular belief that there is support in wine and spirituous drink—as held of old and exemplified in the well-known recommendation of St. Paul to his ailing disciple.

Dr. Anstie's conclusion from such evidence, and from a very large hospital experience, is that, beyond all possibility of doubt, pure alcohol, with the addition of only a small quantity of water, will prolong life greatly beyond the period at which it would cease if no nourishment is given; that, during the progress of acute diseases, it very commonly supports not only life, but also the bulk of the body, during many days of abstinence from common foods; and that, although the physician and physiologist fail to explain chemically how it is that the result is brought about, it may, nevertheless, be safely affirmed that the influence exerted over the body by alcohol is, essentially, of a food-character.

"It may be well," observes a writer in the Edinburgh Review "for even advanced and accomplished physiologists to bear in mind that there may be 'more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy.' There would at least be nothing more startling in the discovery that the physiological dogma which affirms that the products of the reduction of complex organic substances (such as alcohol) cannot be employed as the food of animal life had to be reconsidered, and in some particulars reversed, or revised, than there has been in the recent reversal of the Liebig dogma, that nitrogenous principles alone can be used for constructive purposes, and the simpler hydrocarbons alone for the production of animal warmth."

And, in this point of view, Dr. Anstie argues that many substances which are ranked as even "poisonous" to the system must not be taken to be absolutely "foreign" to the organism, except in a relative sense, when even such agents as mercury and arsenic, given in small doses for long periods, produce what is termed a tonic influence, improving the quality of the blood and the tissues, and do this in such a way that it is scarcely possible to maintain that they contract no organic combination.

Dr. Anstie frequently dwells on the notable fact that in all cases of disease where alcohol is used successfully as a medicinal support—as in the case of exhaustive fevers—its presence as an alcoholic emanation, whether in the breath or in other secretions, is absent altogether, as if, in those cases, the whole force of the agent was absorbed in its beneficent operation. He also declares that in such instances its exciting and intoxicating powers appear to be in abeyance, and that the recovery from acute disease where this medicine has been successfully employed is invariably more rapid and complete than it is in altogether similar cases which have been treated without alcohol.

If alcohol be only a heat-producing food, it may be remarked that nowadays Liebig's well-known theory is no longer absolute, since it is established that great labor may be performed for a short period without the use of a nitrogenous—diet that is, with one exclusively carbonaceous. Hence, perhaps, the claim of alcohol to constitute a food. Although forming none of the constituents of blood, alcohol limits the combination of those constituents, and in this way it is equivalent to so much blood. As Moleschott says: "He who has little can give but little, if he wish to retain as much as one who is prodigal of his wealth. Alcohol is the savings-bank of the tissues. He who eats little, and drinks alcohol in moderation, retains as much in his blood and tissues as he who eats more, and drinks no alcohol."

But, while we thus know that alcohol supplies the place of a certain quantity of food, we do not know how it does so. It is said to be "burnt" in the body, and to make its exit as carbonic acid and water; but no proof has yet been offered of this assertion. Some of it escapes in the breath, and in certain of the secretions; but how much escapes in this way, and what becomes of what remains—in the very large proportion, in the case of the dog previously mentioned—is at present a mystery.

In Steinmetz's "History of Tobacco," p. 97, occurs the following surmise, published nearly twenty years ago, but now established as a matter of fact. He says: "I feel compelled to believe, in advance of Liebig, that alcohol is absolutely generated in the digestive process of all animals. Startling as the theory may seem, the consideration of corroborating facts may, perhaps, induce the reader to think it probable, if not certain. It is well known that all the vegetables we eat contain starch; all the fruits contain sugar. Now, starch can easily be converted into sugar; the process of malting is a familiar instance. . . . The natural heat of the body is precisely adapted, in the healthy state, to effect a fermentation after having changed the starch into sugar, which last is constantly found in the blood. That alcohol has not been found seems to result simply from the fact that it must be sought in arterial blood, or blood which has not lost a portion of its carbon in transitu, through the lungs in the respiratory process."

Now, it happens that Dr. Dupré, in the course of his investigations, discovered that alcohol is found in small quantity in the excretions even of persons who do not touch fermented beverage in any form—that is, the healthy system of the teetotaller brews, so to speak, a little drop for itself. But, if this be the case, it would seem that we have enough already in the system, and therefore there can be no need of having recourse to the bottle or the tap for more, unless the system be a prey to disease. And this applies especially to those who live mostly on vegetable or farinaceous food, who, it may be remarked, are naturally less inclined to alcoholic drinks than those who use animal food—when it becomes particularly dangerous. So that, if the Alliance and the supporters of the Permissive Bill would succeed in their aim, they should convert us all into vegetarians. To drunkards who are anxious to reform, this is a most important consideration.

In conclusion, the most reliable opinion respecting alcoholic drinks appears to be, that the relation of their actions to food is such that, when they are required by the system, they cause a necessity for increased food; but, when not required, they lessen the necessity for food. Now, as Dr. Edward Smith emphatically remarks, the tendency of all food, but particularly of animal food, is precisely in the same direction; so that the skin is drier after than before dinner, other things being equal. In like manner, the hands and feet, and the skin generally, become hot and dry after taking alcoholic drinks, and an intoxicated man in a state of perspiration would be an unheard-of phenomenon.

The direct tendency of alcohol is to diminish muscular power in a state of health, but indirectly it may have the contrary effect by improving the tone of the system through the appetite and digestion of food. In the state of body in which alcohol has reduced muscular contractibility, all the vital actions temporarily languish; and so far the action of alcohol is opposed to foods, and it is not a food.

While the food-action of beer and wine may be accounted for by their known nutritive ingredients, other than alcohol, which they contain, much difference of opinion exists as to the true action of alcohol itself, and the problem to be solved is, whether it acts physically or chemically. The known actions of alcohol in man are physical in their character, and so they are upon food immersed in alcohol, or alcohol-and-water, when it is hardened, and the process of digestion retarded.

If it has been shown that alcohol is capable of supporting a few persons, it is certain that it kills in its own way ten thousand persons a year in Russia, and fifty thousand in England; but its method of killing is slow, indirect, and by painful disease.

Finally, two things must always be borne in mind. First, we use alcohol not on account of its importance as a nutriment, but on account of its effects as a stimulant or relish; and secondly, the border-line between its use and abuse is so hard to be defined that it becomes a dangerous instrument even in the hands of the strong and wise, a murderous instrument in the hands of the foolish and weak.—Food and Fuel Reformer.