Can Booze Cure a Cold?
A close look at healing through alcohol.
Photo: Susan Brooks-Dammann / Stocksy
Let's be honest. We're all looking for additional reasons to drink right now. As we head into the holiday season in the wake of the most divisive political upset since King Joffrey donned the crown on GoT, it seems like a great time to start viewing increased alcohol consumption as a medical necessity.
Alcohol has been used for its medicinal properties since Biblical times, but we're not just taking god's word for it. I talked to practitioners from both Eastern and Western medicine about the legitimacy of historical alcohol cures to find out which ones are actually grounded in scientific fact and which ones are as baseless as your relatives' drunken rants at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Check out the fact and fiction behind some of the most well-known historical alcohol cures:
Hot Toddies For a Cold
I've always thought the upside of coming down with a head cold was the potential for a nice whiskey buzz courtesy of the good old hot toddy. The drink is made by combining whiskey, or in some cases brandy, with hot water or tea, some lemon, honey and cloves.
There are several different theories on how hot toddies act to cure the common cold. One is that alcohol can dilate swollen blood vessels, which temporarily eases inflamed mucous membranes, making you feel less congested. Alcohol can also create drowsiness, and since sleep is one of the main recommended ways to heal from illness, an infusion of medicinal booze seems like a logical choice.
I checked with two different health practitioners on the legitimacy of the hot toddy as a cure. Ayurvedic practitioner Eileen Truesdale says that "alcohol has strong qualities of being both heating and drying, so it makes sense that if you have a cold with symptoms of shivering and you have lots of mucous, alcohol could warm you up, and dry you out some. Hot herbal tea and honey is a drink I would commonly recommend to someone facing a cold. I just personally wouldn't recommend adding a substantial dosage of alcohol, as it is unnecessary and even counterproductive."
This wasn't the answer I wanted, so I asked someone else.
"Alcohol does have a vasodilating effect, which can improve circulation to the infected area, but it's really the herbs, honey and hot liquid that are offering the healing properties here," says Narendra Garg, an Illinois-based internist.
It turns out I was wrong about its usefulness as a sleep aid as well. Although alcohol initially promotes drowsiness, studies have shown that it disrupts REM sleep—the kind that you need to truly be well-rested.
So maybe downing six or seven cups of spiked tea isn't the ultimate cold cure. That doesn't mean I'm giving up on booze as a satisfying sub for chicken soup. One study (out of several others, mind you, that cited less flattering things about alcohol consumption) showed that moderate intake of wine—14 glasses a week or less—had a protective effect against the common cold, so we're swapping out our industrial-sized can of Lysol for a full-bodied Merlot.
Drambuie for a Cough
Drambuie, a liqueur made from whiskey, heather honey and a collection of herbs, came from a personal recipe from the Prince of Scotland in 1746, and has become a popular home remedy for treating coughs.
Honey is in Drambuie. Therefore Drambuie is the new Robitussin. Right?
"You could just take the honey and skip the alcohol," answered both of our practitioners in almost identical irritatingly sensible tones.
Aperitifs for Appetite Stimulation
Aperitifs are drinks served before a meal to stimulate the appetite and prepare the body for digestion. Popular aperitifs include vermouth, pastis, dry champagne, gin, and bitters. A study from last year confirmed that bitters do work to stimulate the gustatory nerves, which increase salivary secretions.
Garg adds that small amounts of alcohol have a legitimate stimulating effect on the appetite but binge drinking before eating actually has the opposite effect. And our Ayurvedic practitioner concurs. "The taste of bitter prompts the body to produce digestive fluids and boosts metabolism, which could make one hungry," she says.
Brandy, sherry, fernet, and sweet liqueurs are among the after-dinner drinks known as "digestifs," which are thought to aid in post-meal digestion. A buzzkill of a study showed that consuming digestifs following a meal had no positive effect on gastric emptying or dyspeptic symptoms, but that a nice long walk did.
The closest I was able to come in scientifically justifying the use of digestifs was by taking a shot of Peppermint Schnapps before hitting the dessert table to make sure no pie goes untried. Multiple medical journals have confirmed the soothing qualities of peppermint oil for digestion, specifically in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. Of course, peppermint can be ingested in many non-alcoholic forms, too.
None of these studies account for alcohol's ability to make prolonged exposure to extended family less nauseating though. So, there's that.
Whiskey for a Teething Baby
Historically, rubbing alcohol on a teething baby's gums was considered a go-to cure, but in recent years the practice has been shunned by those who say exposing infants to any level of alcohol intake is harmful. It's also been proven to be an ineffective treatment.
"The alcohol may give some relief as an astringent," says California-based dentist Mark Burhenne. "But it really doesn't work that well. Salt water is a much better solution. When there's bleeding and raw tissue, astringents have some history of efficacy but I wouldn't have your kids swishing with alcohol in case they swallow it."
I suppose infants are disorderly enough. No need to add "drunk" to the mix.
What I Learned
Alcohol is no panacea, but it does have its shining moments. Both of our practitioners urged that moderation is a key element of using alcohol as a medicinal treatment, but it's Thanksgiving, so I'm ignoring that. Cheers.