Does alcohol have medicinal benefits?

Monday, November 13, 2006
You know what they say about Aussies and alcohol — if there's a party on, we'll be there, drink in hand. In fact, on any given week, nearly seven million Australians are going to enjoy a tipple or two!

The evidence on alcohol consumption is clear — drink too much, too often and you're leaving yourself wide open to major health problems. But we're going down a different path. Is there any truth to the rumour that alcohol has medicinal benefits?

We'll answer that question by testing out three common scenarios where alcohol supposedly comes to the rescue.

1. If you are cold, can alcohol warm you up?

It's what St Bernard dogs are famous for — rescuing the cold and the hapless from certain disaster in the Alps. The weary rescuee is offered a swig of brandy from the flask tied around the dog's collar and, hey presto, hypothermia becomes "happythermia!"

But is this a realistic image? Is alcohol really a cure for hypothermia?

We're putting it to the test — in the cold store of a Sydney butchery. And our laboratory beefcake is Chris Pappas.

Dr Margaret Hamilton is going to supervise our little test and checks Chris's temperature before he goes into the cool room. "Okay, that's a normal temperature 36.6. Let's go in the cool room, let's see how you go," she says.

The temperature in the cool room is a chilly four degrees.

At this temperature, Chris could stay in there for an hour before hypothermia sets in.

But after 20 minutes, he's more than ready to accept our invitation to come outside for a shot of brandy.

First, another temperature check: Chris's temperature has dropped one degree. Now it's time for that shot of brandy.

Doctor: "Okay Chris, so how does that feel having it?"
Chris: "It's warming up my throat."

But will it warm up the rest of him?

It's back into the cooler for you old mate and we'll see if the brandy actually makes an impact in raising his core body temperature.

After 10 minutes it's time to see if Chris's temperature has changed again. Before the brandy, he was 35.6 degrees.

"No it hasn't changed at all. It hasn't come up a bit," says Dr Hamilton.

Sorry folks. Drinking alcohol when you're cold will not raise your body temperature.

Now for the official explanation, courtesy of Dr Yvonne Benomo, a specialist in addiction medicine at St. Vincent's Hospital in Melbourne: "When you drink a shot of alcohol, what happens is it becomes absorbed into your bloodstream and the blood vessels in your skin dilate and your face becomes quite flushed. You feel warm to touch, but at the same time, you're losing more heat from your skin, so your core body temperature decreases while you're still feeling warm on the periphery."

Dr Benomo's advice? If you ever get stuck out in the freezing cold, try and rug up any way you can. The worst thing you can do is turn to the alcohol for comfort, because the more you drink, the colder you get!

2. Will a "hot toddy" cure a cold?

"It's just a delightful drink — no wonder the Scotsmen like it," says 82-year-old Albert Wallace. He has been making hot toddies for 30 years. He doesn't have one every night — just most nights.

Albert: "I make it with at least two fingers of whiskey, boiling water and sugar and I use brown sugar because I don't have white sugar in the house. And I mix them around and I sip them, I don't drink it straight down."

Albert says by drinking his hot toddy, he gets a better night's sleep — and the experts agree.

"The reason being that alcohol is a sedative type of substance and so when people drink alcohol they quite rapidly feel relaxed and less anxious," says Dr Benomo.

Albert also believes that when he's got a cold, the hot toddy will help fix it, but on that front, he's on his own …

"Generally a hot toddy won't help a cold. There has been some research showing that if you drink alcohol in a healthy way you may be less likely to catch a cold, but once you have a cold, unfortunately, drinking alcohol will not speed up your recover in any way. You basically have to let the body fight the cold itself," says Dr Benomo.

3. Can you treat a wound with alcohol?

American cattle rancher Bram Schaffer was out hunting one day when the hunter became the hunted.

"And I looked up and here come these two fuzzy things running at me full bore …" he says.

Bram was about to be attacked by a massive grizzly: "when I turned up and ran she came up behind me and bit me down on the top of the head and took me to the ground."

Amazingly, Bram survived the attack, but suffered horrific wounds to his head and leg. Luckily, there was a doctor in the hunting party.

Dr Andrew Wolfe: "I was worried mostly about the loss of tissue to the leg."

The first thing Dr Wolfe did was douse the open wound with a bottle of overproof alcohol and that's probably what saved Bram's life.

"In surgery, for instance, we use alcohol with other antiseptics to disinfect the area for surgery," says Dr Benomo.

This is what alcohol does. It breaks open harmful bacterial cells and kills them, effectively sterilising the wound. But there's a catch — the alcohol needs to be at least 70 percent proof. So yes, if you're desperate, alcohol can be used to treat wounds. But only if it's pure, or close to it.

Anything of lesser strength, like beer or wine, won't be strong enough to stop the bacteria in its tracks.

While Bram had a lucky escape and even though the booze came to the rescue in his case, it should be noted that alcohol is our number one substance abuse problem in Australia, so do drink in moderation.

Fast facts

  • A hot toddy may not cure a cold. But some insist that a whiskey nightcap helps keep cancer at bay. Are they right? Some scientists say a single malt whisky contains ellagic acid that may help destroy rogue cancer-causing cells in your body. But go easy — the evidence isn't 100 percent proof.

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