Is whiskey good for you?
Is whiskey good for you?
This is, I suppose, a bit of a nuanced questions. Is it good to drink whisky, get drunk and fall down the stairs? Perhaps not. But, if drunk in moderation, are there other medicinal benefits from drinking whisky? Is whiskey good for you? Ah, that’s a real question; and there might be something to it. The name for whisky is Gaelic is Uisge Beatha or the Water of Life, after all.
They certainly used to think there were medical benefits from whiskey. The famous historian and chronicler Raphaël Holinshed wrote in 1577 that whisky:
“Being moderately taken, it slows the age, cuts phlegm, helps digestion, cures the dropsy, it heals the strangulation, keeps and preserves the head from whirling, the tongue from lisping, the stomach from womblying, the guts from rumbling, the hands from shivering, the bones from aching…and truly it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderly taken.”
I’m not exactly sure how whiskey ‘heals the strangulation,’ and arguably the 1500s weren’t known for their medical advancements. In fact, this was a time when quite a lot of stock was but into the diagnostic value of examining urine. But don’t let that put you off, the supposed benefits of whisky persisted long out of the 1500s.
In the twentieth century, the medical benefits of whiskey were so widely recognised that scotch could be legally prescribed by a doctor during Prohibition. This meant that scotch could be legally imported into the US and purchased in a pharmacy, provided people said they were using it as a tonic. Note, that was ‘using it AS a tonic, not drinking it WITH tonic.’
Volstead Act, which lead to Prohibition, specifically said: “A person may, without a permit, purchase and use liquor for medicinal purposes when prescribed by a physician as herein provided.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, pharmacies caught onto this opportunity. Walgreens, for example, had about 20 stores before Prohibition and over 525 by the time it ended. But I suspect that might have been from another kind of demand for whisky, rather than people looking to ‘cure the dropsy, it heal the strangulation’.
That said, lets look at some of the possible benefits of whiskey.
- Whisky benefits the heart and blood vessels. Dr. John Floras, Director of Cardiology Research at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and Mount Sinai Hospital said: "Our findings point to a slight beneficial effect of one drink–be it alcohol or red wine–on the heart and blood vessels, whereas two or more drinks would seem to turn on systems that stress the circulation."
It’s probably worth pointing out that most of these studies do mean moderate drinking to be 1 – 6 drinks per week, if you smash 6 whiskies in 1 sitting, I don’t think it counts as being moderate. At least, medically speaking.
- Whiskey can help lower your risk of dementia. In a study in 2003 found that moderate drinkers, who had between 1 and 6 alcoholic drinks a week, had a lower risk of dementia compared to a control group of non-drinkers. Interestingly, this same study also found that the group of moderate drinkers were less likely to develop dementia than drinkers who had more than 6 alcoholic drinks a week.
- Whisky helps with digestion. Because of the high alcohol content, if you drink alcohol after a big meal, it can help to stimulate your digestive enzymes and make you less likely to have an upset stomach. Although, again, too much whisky has, and I’m speaking from personal experience, been known to lead to … let’s call it nausea.
- Whisky lowers the risk of a stroke. According to Harvard University, there are more than 100 prospective studies showing an inverse association between light to moderate drinking and risk of heart attack, clot-caused stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes. The effect is fairly consistent, corresponding to a 25-40% reduction in risk. However, increasing alcohol intake to more than 4 drinks a day can increase the risk of hypertension, abnormal heart rhythms, stroke, heart attack, and death. None of which are good for you.
The Harvard study said that the idea that moderate drinking protects against cardiovascular disease makes sense biologically and scientifically. Moderate amounts of alcohol raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), and higher HDL levels are associated with greater protection against heart disease. Moderate alcohol consumption has also been linked with beneficial changes ranging from better sensitivity to insulin to improvements in factors that influence blood clotting. Such changes would tend to prevent the formation of small blood clots that can block arteries in the heart, neck, and brain, the ultimate cause of many heart attacks and the most common kind of stroke.
- Whisky can cure the common cold. No, really. Whisky dilates your blood vessels, which means that they widen. When your blood vessels widen, it helps to reduce congestion because it helps your mucus membrane more, and they helps to flush out an infection. I mean, that all sounds gross, but I’m going to caulk it up as an extra benefit.
Those are all the sort of ‘big’ medical benefits. But there are some more practical reasons why whiskey is good for you. Some are pretty obvious:
- Whisky eases stress and anxiety. This is one of the main reasons you probably drink whisky, besides the fact that it’s delicious (unless you’re drinking Fujikai 10). Drinking whisky increases your circulation and relaxation comes from with more oxygenated blood going to your organ. I’m sure I’ve seen that crocheted on a pillow.
- Whisky is good for your waistline. A measure of whisky has zero carbs, almost no fat and only about 60 calories. They call it a beer gut for a reason, if you’re looking to go out and don’t want to be putting on the pounds, drinking whisky is a good way to go about it.
Now, naturally, everything I’ve said here is about drinking whisky in moderation. Whisky can be good for you, if you don’t drink it to excess.
‘8 Scientific Studies That Prove Whiskey Is Good for You’, Cool Material, 2018 <https://coolmaterial.com/food-drink/health-benefits-whiskey/> [accessed 4 December 2019]
‘Alcohol constricts or dilates blood vessels?’, Medicine, 2017 <http://medicalj-center.info/diseases/cardiology/alcohol-constricts-or-dilates-blood-vessels.html> [accessed 4 December 2019]
‘BBC News | Health | It’s for Medicinal Purposes, Honest...’ <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/234957.stm> [accessed 4 December 2019]
‘Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits’, The Nutrition Source, 2012 <https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/drinks-to-consume-in-moderation/alcohol-full-story/> [accessed 4 December 2019]
Bovey, Alixe, ‘Medicine in the Middle Ages’, The British Library <https://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/medicine-diagnosis-and-treatment-in-the-middle-ages> [accessed 4 December 2019]
Hallemann, Caroline, ‘6 Surprising Ways Whiskey Is Actually Good for Your Health’, Town & Country, 2018 <https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/drinks/news/a6960/whiskey-health-benefits/> [accessed 4 December 2019]
Mukamal, Kenneth J., Lewis H. Kuller, Annette L. Fitzpatrick, W. T. Longstreth, Murray A. Mittleman, and David S. Siscovick, ‘Prospective Study of Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Dementia in Older Adults’, JAMA, 289.11 (2003), 1405–13 <https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.289.11.1405>
Murphy, Sean, ‘Are There Any Health Benefits to Drinking Scotch Whisky (in Moderation)?’, Scotsman Food and Drink, 2017 <https://foodanddrink.scotsman.com/drink/health-benefits-drinking-scotch-whisky-moderation/> [accessed 4 December 2019]