Bacchic Medicine: Wine and Alcohol Therapies from Napoleon to the French Paradox


Wine, said Louis Pasteur, is the most healthful and the most hygienic of all beverages. Since antiquity, wine was believed to stimulate the appetite, aid digestion, and act as a general energiser in debility, and was prescribed for practically every complaint. In Bacchic Medicine Harry W Paul, professor of history at the university of Florida, charts in scholarly, though somewhat confusing and repetitive detail, the rise and fall of the French love affair with vinothérapie.

Potverdekke da smokt


Guido Deboeck, great-grandson of a small traditional brewer from the Pajotteland, has taken his love of strong Belgian beers with him over the herring pond, where he is even helping to develop and promote a Belgian beer culture. He has laid down his extensive knowledge in a book ‘Un Beer Ably’, which translates as ‘a healthy pint’, with the subtitle ‘Delicious in Brussels; Potverdekke Da Smokt’.

After a history of beer-brewing and its evolution in Belgium in general, and in the Pajotteland in particular, the author turns his gaze to the “Belgian style Beers” in North America, and then concludes the book with a tasty section devoted to “Cooking with Beer”: recipes for soups, fish and meat dishes, and desserts, followed by addresses where all the wonderful food can be found. Who could resist ‘Mussels in Belgian strong beer’ or ‘Sole Fillets in Saffron Sauce with Trippel’?

The book, 288 pages thick, is an edition of DOKUS Publishing, 3850 North River Street, Arlington VA 22207;



Drinking, a healthy pleasure


Jan Snel, Professor at the University of Rotterdam and associate with ARISE (Associates for Research Into the Science of Enjoyment), has written a book on the simple pleasure of moderate drinking. He regards the feel-good factor as the basis for good health.

Moderate alcohol consumption is good for the heart. What is more, scientific research shows that an average of two glasses a day has all kinds of beneficial effects for the general state of health. Epidemiological research would seem to show that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of health problems, gall stones, kidney stones, pancreatic cancer, gastric ulcers, non-Hodgkin’s lymphatic cancer, and benign prostate enlargement and prostate cancer, up to and including Parkinson’s disease. The underlying mechanisms of certain of these beneficial effects have since been decoded, inter alia the effects on the heart and the blood vessels, the effects on sudden death.
Moderate enjoyment of alcohol increases life expectancy. Most of the serious researchers will even admit that alcohol is the wellspring of these health-giving effects. Others would prefer to find it in other substances, such as polyphenols, anti-oxidants, or even vitamin B6.

Happy hour

Well, if that’s all true, why aren’t these joy-joy substances available on the open market in pill form? So why, for example, don’t we just swallow an alcohol pill and prevent cardiovascular disease? According to Jan Snel, psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, there’s no real point. Because the health-giving effects of moderate drinking are not limited to physical well-being. Alcohol consumption also has a beneficial effect on cognitive and psychological health. The odd glass or two a day puts some lead in the old pencil; our older brothers, our older sisters, he says, remain socially more “with-it” – and therefore more self-reliant. A daily “happy hour” therefore has a significant psychological impact. Those of us who drink alcohol in moderation are usually more resilient as regards the slings and arrows. We “kvetch” less. We are less disposed to fling ourselves off high places. We enjoy a more rewarding, and a more fulfilled social life than do dry-as-dust non-drinkers or, indeed, excessive drinkers.
Scientists are rather disposed to seek the explanation for the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption in ethanol, or in other substances. What they tend to overlook, however, is the reason why people like to drink a beer or two. We drink alcohol “for the hell of it”. Enquiries suggest that 60% of moderate drinkers drink because we like the nice taste. And the nice disinhibiting effects. It is more than possible that the feel-good factor, procured from moderate consumption, is behind the real health-giving result. That, at any rate, is the gospel according to Professor Jan Snel.

Good for the immune system

Sad to relate, there is, nonetheless, little extant research in this connection. Such scientific literature as exists would suggest that other activities, such as listening to music, eating sweets, pursuing relaxing activities or just having a good laugh do the immune system a power of good. In other words, these pleasant activities have a good fall-out as regards physical well-being. Did you know, for instance, that people who like to nibble candies live longer than people who don’t? By the same token, “occasional nibblers” will live longer than teetotalers. The U-curve for moderate “sweeties” consumption is remarkably akin to that for the known U-curve for judicious alcohol consumption, says Snel in his book. Relaxing activities and hobbies are known to enhance mental thereness and awareness, to raise the general feeling of well-being, job-satisfaction, etc. In fact, all forms of pleasure-giving activities do the immune system no end of good. They ensure a modicum of calm and equilibrium and provide a natural antidote for the Shit-That-Happens.
Enjoying a cool glass of beer or a nice drop of wine draw together all the virtues and the benefits of all the foregoing activities. It is a pleasurable occupation, we do it in pleasant company, it cheers us up and, more often than not, lends our spirits wings so that we too charm and entertain. In short, moderate alcohol consumption is fun. So enjoy, and be well.

Drinking for fun, or drowning your sorrows?

Drinking for fun is an altogether different proposition than drinking to forget. That was shown in a broad-fronted research in Heidelberg, in the early Nineties. The study tracked a group of 50 to 60 year-olds over a period of 13 years. During that period, 2.5% of moderate drinkers died from cardiovascular diseases, as against 3.4% of total abstainers and 5.6% of drinkers who drink for no other reason than to forget. The researchers therefore suppose that the feelings people have about their drinking, not drinking – the who, the why and the wherefore – also contribute towards the objective effect on physical health.
Other research indicates that self-blame and hangover go hand in hand. Nor is this any respecter of sex. Being hung over is quite bad enough; self-loathing is no friend. Instead of blaming yourself for breaking your golden rule of a moderate alcohol consumption, why not just appreciate the good times? When you see the balance tipping over into excessive alcohol consumption, well, whose fault was it? You know yourself you’re in the wrong, says Snel. People just don’t like to face up to their own drinking habits. Most of us could insist on the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption, enjoying a glass of beer or wine in the company of friends. Learning sane and sensible drinking needs good teachers. Young adults like to experiment; they want to push and test the limits. Pushing to extremes, the parents’ dread, wanes with increasing age. Parents must show their children how to enjoy alcohol, how to appreciate alcohol. Try to prohibit alcohol, for fear of abuse, and all you do is offer your children the self-defeating fascination of the forbidden fruit.

Alcohol, the cold, hard facts
Health-giving effects of moderate alcohol consumption
Jan Snel
Gorcum Publishers, Netherlands
Release date: June 2002


What part does alcohol play in crime?


In Germany, one homicide in three is committed by a killer who is under the influence of alcohol. Is that to say that alcohol is, in fact, instrumental in the criminal act? Is it the proverbial last drop that makes the cup run over? In their book “Alkohol und Schuldfähigkeit” (» “Alcohol and the Issue of Guilt”), German professors Frank Schneider and Helmut Frister from Düsseldorf University attempt an answer to this question.

Frank Schneider discusses the medical and psychological consequences of excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol dependency, and the symptoms of acute alcoholic poisoning. He explains why a given blood alcohol concentration in the same person may lead to highly divergent reactions according to the particular circumstances. A great many ambient factors can influence the behaviour of a person who is under the influence of alcohol. The impact of such ambient factors is greater than the impact of the alcohol itself. However, the question remains as to whether a person who commits a criminal offence while under the influence of alcohol should be regarded as being any less responsible in comparison with a person who commits a criminal act while in full control of his or her faculties. Many people spontaneously feel that persons under the influence of drink or drugs are precisely rather less responsible than when they are sober. Professors Schneider and Frister now raise doubts. After all, it is not impossible that a person intending to commit a crime will first drink a few to work up the courage and therefore end up under the influence. Many of us are inclined to drink when we are tense and nervous, but the decision to actually consume large amounts of alcohol is ours, and ours alone. No-one is forced to drink. Both authors insist that the actions that follow alcohol abuse cannot simply be ascribed to the effects of drink.

Alkohol und Schuldfähigkeit
Frank Schneider, Helmut Frister
Springer Verlag Heidelberg 2002,
39,95 EUR
ISBN 3-540-41924-1


Bacchic Medicine: Wine and Alcohol Therapies from Napoleon to the French Paradox


Wine, said Louis Pasteur, is the most healthful and the most hygienic of all beverages. Since antiquity, wine was believed to stimulate the appetite, aid digestion, and act as a general energiser in debility, and was prescribed for practically every complaint. In Bacchic Medicine Harry W Paul, professor of history at the university of Florida, charts in scholarly, though somewhat confusing and repetitive detail, the rise and fall of the French love affair with vinothérapie.

This affair began in earnest at the beginning of the 19th century, when scientific theories from Britain provided evidence that wine, the gift of Bacchus, could indeed be a miracle cure. Quality and age were all important, and wines from different vineyards had to be matched to the temperament of the particular patient. Thus physicians required the skills of masters of wine as well as of medicine, and medical societies debated the respective virtues of reds and whites and the merits of burgundies, champagnes, and the like. Recommended dosage, such as three to six goblets with meals or one to three glasses of champagne five times a day, would now be considered somewhat excessive.

By the end of the century “the mighty remedy had fallen rapidly from its perch of therapeutic domination,” as medicinal drugs took over and society was alarmed by the increasing threat of alcoholism. Experts argued that wine was different from other alcohols: it contained useful chemicals and did not cause diseases like cirrhosis.

By the 20th century the industry was in the doldrums: a market flooded with mediocre wines, vineyards ravaged by phylloxera, and a treacherous medical profession emphasising the rising tide of alcoholism. The doctors of Bordeaux and the Société de Médecine de Paris hit back by reporting that up to 60 cl a day (about 7 units) of light, natural wine cut with water was good for health and contained easily assimilable chemicals that could fight disease. Alcoholism resulted from “industrial” alcohols such as beer and spirits, and not from grape alcohol.

The wine glut continued after the first world war, and prohibition in the United States didn’t help, but modern physico-chemical theories demonstrated that the content of wine was comparable to that of a living cell and nutritional value similar to that of human breast milk. Additional selling points, such as the presence of vitamins, and even mild radioactivity, failed to put wine back on the therapeutic agenda. A last gasp of recent times has been “the French paradox,” mightily promoted by the media, that the French have low levels of coronary artery disease in spite of a high fat diet. Red wine especially contains antioxidants, cholesterol lowering agents, and clot-busting substances that might be protective. But then if wine is that good, why do only 28% of French people drink it regularly?

A.Paton (British Medical Journal)
Bacchic Medicine: Wine and Alcohol Therapies from Napoleon to the French Paradox
Harry W Paul

Editions Rodopi BV, €30/$28/£28.70, pp 341

ISSN 0045-7183

ISBN 90 420 1111 4