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Alcohol





Category: BEVERAGES, ALCOHOL, AND TOBACCO
Source: A Handbook Of Health

How Alcohol is Made. The most dangerous addition that man has ever
made to the water which he drinks is alcohol. It is made by the action
of the yeast plant on wet sugar or starch--a process called
fermentation. Usually the sugar or starch is in the form of the juice
of fruits; or is a pulp, or mash, made from crushed grains like barley,
corn, or rye. As the spores of this yeast plant are floating about
almost everywhere in the air, all that is usually necessary is to let
some fruit juice or grain pulp stand at moderate warmth, exposed to the
air, when it will begin to sour, or ferment.

Wine. When the yeast plant is set to work in a tub or vat of grape
juice, it attacks the fruit sugar contained in the juice, and splits it
up into alcohol and carbon dioxid, so that the juice becomes bubbly and
frothy from the gas. When from seven to fifteen per cent of alcohol has
been produced, the liquid is called wine. It contains, besides alcohol,
some unchanged fruit sugar, fruit acids, and some other products of
fermentation (known as ethers and aldehydes), which give each kind
of wine its special flavor.

Beer, Ale, and Cider. If the yeast germ be set to work in a pulp or
mash of crushed barley or wheat, the starch of which has been partly
turned into sugar by malting, it breaks up the sugar into alcohol and
carbon dioxid. When it has brewed enough of the starch to produce
somewhere from four to eight per cent of alcohol, then the liquid, which
still contains about three or four per cent of a starch-sugar called
maltose, is called beer, or ale. It is usually flavored with hops to
give it a bitter taste and make it keep better. If the same process be
carried out in apple juice, we get the well known hard cider with its
biting taste.

Whiskey, Brandy, and Rum. When left to itself, the process of
fermentation in most of these sugary or starchy liquids will come to a
standstill after a while, because the alcohol, when it reaches a certain
strength in the liquid, is, like all other toxins, or poisons produced
by germs, a poison also to the germ that produces it. The yeast-bacteria
probably produce alcohol as a poison to kill off other germs which
compete with them for their share of the sugar or starch. So even the
origin of this curious drug-food shows its harmful character. We should
hardly pick out the poison produced by one germ to kill another germ as
likely to make a useful and wholesome food.

If man had been content to leave this fermentation process to nature, it
is probable that many of the worst effects of alcohol would never have
been heard of. But these lighter forms of alcoholic drinks did not
satisfy the unnatural cravings which they had themselves created. Some
people never can leave even bad-enough alone. So man, with an ingenuity
which might have been much better used, sought a way of getting a liquor
which would contain more alcohol than nature, unaided, could be made to
brew in it. A little experimenting showed that the alcohol in fermenting
juices was lighter than water; so that by gently heating the fermenting
mass, the alcohol would evaporate and pass off as vapor, with a little
of the steam from the water. Then, by catching this vapor in a closed
vessel and pouring cold water over the outside of the vessel, it could
be condensed again in the form of a clear, brownish fluid of burning
taste, containing nearly fifty per cent of alcohol, instead of the
original five or six.

This evaporated or distilled mixture of alcohol and water, if made from
a mash of corn, wheat, rye, or potatoes, is called whiskey; if from
fruit-juice, brandy. A similar liquor, made out of fermented rice, is
known as arrack in India, or sake in Japan; and the liquor made from
fermented molasses is called rum.

Alcohol not a True Food, but a Drug. The much disputed question as to
whether alcohol is a food or not, is really of little or no practical
importance. It is quite true, as might be expected, from its close
relation to sugar and the readiness, for instance, with which it will
burn in an alcohol lamp or stove, that alcohol, in small amounts, is
capable of being burned in the body, thus giving it energy. This may
give it a certain limited value in some forms of sickness, as, for
instance, in certain fevers and infections, when the stomach does not
seem to be able to digest food. But here it acts as a medicine rather
than as a true food and, like all other medicines, should be used only
under skilled medical advice and control. For practical purposes, any
trifling food value it may have is more than offset by its later
poisonous and disturbing effects and, secondly, by its enormous
expensiveness.

The greatest amount of alcohol that could be consumed in the body at all
safely would barely supply one-tenth of the total fuel value needed; and
if any one were to attempt to supply the body with energy by the use of
alcohol, he would be blind drunk before he had taken one-third of the
amount required. From the point of view of expense alone, to take
alcohol for food is like killing buffalos for their tongues and letting
the rest of the carcass go to waste, as the Indians and pioneer hunters
of the plains used to do. It never has more than a fraction of the food
value of the grain or fruit out of which it was made; and the amount of
nutriment that it contains costs ten times as much as it would in any of
the staple foods.

Moreover, when it is taken with an ordinary supply of food, it is found
that, for every ounce of alcohol burned in the body, a similar amount of
the other food is prevented from being consumed, and probably goes to
waste, owing to the harmful effects of alcohol upon digestion.
Therefore, to talk of alcohol as a food is really absurd.

The Effect of Alcohol on Digestion. It has been urged by some that
alcohol increases the appetite, and enables one to digest larger amounts
of food. The early experiments seemed to support this claim by showing
that alcohol, well diluted, and in moderate amounts, increased appetite
and the flow of the gastric juice. When the experiments were carried a
little further, however, it was clearly shown that its presence in the
stomach and intestines, in such amounts as would result from a glass of
beer, or one or two glasses of claret-wine with a meal, interfered with
the later stages of digestion, so that the later harmful effects
overbalanced any earlier good effects.

Its Effect on the Temperature of the Body. Another claim urged in its
favor was that it warmed the body and protected it against cold. It
ought to have been easy for any one with a sense of humor to judge the
value of this claim by the fact that it was equally highly commended by
its users as a means of keeping them cool in hot weather. Its supposed
effects in the case of both heat and cold were due to the same fact: it
deadened the nerves for a time to whatever sense of discomfort one might
then be suffering from, but made no change whatever in the condition of
the body that caused the discomfort. Any drug which has this deadening
effect on the nerves is called a narcotic; and it is in this class that
alcohol belongs, together with the stronger narcotics, opium,
chloroform, ether, and chloral.

In fact, it was quickly found in the bitter school of experience that
alcohol, though producing an apparent glow of warmth for the time,
instead of increasing our power to resist cold, rapidly and markedly
lessens it; so that those who drink heavily are much more likely to die
from cold and exposure than those who let alcohol alone. Nowadays,
Arctic explorers, explorers in the tropics, officers of armies upon
forced marches, and those who have to train themselves for the most
severe strains on their powers of endurance, all bear testimony to the
fact that the use of alcohol is harmful instead of helpful under these
conditions, and that it is not for a moment to be compared to real
foods, like meat, sugar, or fat.

Its Effects on Working Power. Then it was claimed that alcohol
increased the working power of the body; that more work and better work
would be done by men at hard labor, if a little beer, or wine, was taken
with their meals. Indeed, most of those who take alcohol believe that
they work faster and better, and with less effort with it than without
it. But the moment that this feeling of increased power and strength
was submitted to careful tests in the laboratory and in the workshop, it
was found that instead of more being accomplished when alcohol was
taken, even in very moderate amounts, less was accomplished by from
six to twelve per cent. The false sense of increased vigor and power was
due to the narcotic power of alcohol to deaden the sensations of fatigue
and discomfort.

It was discovered long ago, almost as soon as men began to put
themselves into training for athletic feats or contests, that alcohol
was not only useless, but very injurious. Any champion who, on the eve
of a contest, breaks training by taking a drink, knows that he is
endangering his record and giving his competitors an advantage over him.

Its Deadening Effect. In short, we must conclude that the so-called
stimulating effects of alcohol are really due to its power of deadening
us to sensations of discomfort or fatigue. Its boasted power of making
men more sociable by loosening their tongues is due to precisely the
same effect: it takes off the balance-wheels of custom, reserve, and
propriety--too often of decency, as well. This is where the greatest
and most serious danger of alcohol comes in, that even in the smallest
doses, it begins to deaden us both mentally and morally, and thus
lessens our power of control. This loss of control steadily increases
with each successive drink until finally the man, completely under the
influence of liquor, reaches a stage when he can neither think
rationally nor speak intelligently, nor even walk straight or stand
upright--making the most humiliating and disgusting spectacle which
humanity can present.

Harmful Effects on the Body. All doctors and scientists and thoughtful
men are now practically agreed: First, that alcohol in excess is
exceedingly dangerous and injurious, and one of the most serious enemies
that modern civilization has to face.

Second, that even in the smallest doses, as a deadener of the sense of
discomfort, it blinds the man who takes it to the harm it is doing and,
as soon as its temporary comforting effects begin to pass off, naturally
leads its victim to resort to it again in increasing doses. In fact,
unlike a true food which quickly satisfies, the use of alcohol too often
creates an appetite that grows by what it feeds on, and is never
satisfied. For every natural appetite or instinct, nature provides a
check; but she provides none for tastes that must be acquired. The last
man to find out that he is taking too much is the drinker himself. Taken
first to relieve discomfort, its own poisonous after-effects create a
new and permanent demand for it.

The third point on which agreement is almost unanimous among scientists
and physicians is that, as will be seen in later chapters, there are a
considerable number of diseases of the liver, of the heart and blood
vessels, of the kidneys, and of the nervous system, which are produced
by, or almost always associated with, alcohol. There are, for instance,
three different kinds of alcoholic insanity. It is true that these
disease-changes most commonly occur in the tissues of those who use
alcohol to excess; and it is also probably true that what the alcoholic
poison is doing in these cases, is picking out the weak spots in the
body and the weaker individuals in the community. Even the strongest and
best of us have our little weaknesses of digestion, of nerves, and of
disposition that we know of, as well as others that we are not
acquainted with. And what is the use of running the risk of having these
picked out and made worse in this dangerous and unpleasant manner, just
for the sake of a little temporary indulgence?

Moreover, while it is admitted that most of these harmful effects of
alcohol are produced by its use in excess, it is daily becoming a more
and more difficult matter to decide just how much is excess. It
certainly differs widely in different individuals, and in different
organs and parts in the same body. An amount of alcohol which one man
might possibly take without harm may greatly injure another; and its
frequent use, though it does not produce the slightest sign of
intoxication, or even of discomfort, or headache, may be slowly and
fatally damaging the cells of the liver or kidney. In fact, the
conviction is growing among scientists that alcohol does the greatest
harm in this slow, insidious way without its user's realizing it in any
way until too late to break the fearful habit.

It may even be perfectly true that alcohol seriously injures not more
than ten or fifteen per cent of those who take it in small quantities;
but how can you tell whether you, or your liver, or kidney, or nerve
cells, belong in the ten per cent or the ninety per cent class? On
general principles, it would hardly seem worth while making the test
simply for the sake of finding out. You never can quite tell what
alcohol has done to you, until the post mortem (after death)
examination--and then the question will not interest you very much.

Its Effect upon Character. Just as alcohol deadens the body and the
senses, especially the higher ones--so it has a terrible effect upon the
mental and moral sides of our natures. The results of the use of alcohol
are so well known that it is unnecessary here to either describe or
picture them. All that is needed is to keep our eyes open upon the
street, and read the police reports. What good effects upon man's better
nature has alcohol to show as an offset for this dreadful tendency to
bring out the worst and lowest in man?

Increasing Knowledge of the Bad Effects of Alcohol is Decreasing its
Use. It is most impressive that almost everything we have found out
about alcohol in the short time that we have been studying it carefully
has been to its discredit. Fifty years ago beer and wine, all over the
civilized world, were commonly regarded as foods. Now they are not
considered true foods, but harmful beverages. Fifty years ago alcohol
was believed to improve the digestion and increase the appetite. Now we
know that it does neither. It was believed to increase working power,
and has now been clearly shown to diminish it. It was supposed to
increase the thinking power and stimulate the imagination, and now we
know that it dulls and muddles both.

Fifty years ago it was freely used as medicine for all sorts of
illnesses, both by doctor and patient; it was supposed to stimulate the
heart, to sustain the strength, to increase the power of the body to
resist disease, and to sustain and support life in emergencies. Now we
know that practically all these claims are unfounded, and that such
value as it has in medicine is chiefly as a narcotic, as a deadener of
the sense of discomfort. As a result, it is already used in medicine
only about one-fourth as much as it was fifty years ago, and its use is
still steadily decreasing.

Fifty years ago, in this country, in England, and on the continent of
Europe, farm laborers and servants living in the house, expected so many
pints or quarts of ale or beer a day, as part of their regular food
rations, just as they now would expect milk or tea or coffee. It was
only a few years ago that the great steamship companies stopped issuing
grog, or raw spirits, to the sailors in their employ, as part of their
daily ration, because they at last came to realize how harmful were its
effects. And a score of similar instances could be mentioned, showing
that the unthinking and general use of alcohol as a beverage at our
tables is steadily and constantly diminishing. Great temperance
societies are springing up in this and other civilized countries and are
having a powerful influence in showing the harm of the use of alcohol
and in inducing people to abstain from using it.

This movement is only fairly started, but is being hastened by such
practical and important influences as the experience of many of the
great business corporations, such as railroads, steamship companies,
insurance companies, banks, and trust companies, which support the
findings of science against alcohol in almost every respect. On account
of the manner in which alcohol unconsciously dulls the senses and blurs
the judgment, these companies began long ago weeding out from their
employ all men who were known to drink to excess; then they began to
reject those who were likely to occasionally over-indulge, or take it
too freely; and now, finally, many of them, particularly the railway and
steamship companies, will not employ--except in the lowest and poorest
paid classes of their service--and will not promote to any position
which puts men in charge of human life and limb, those who use alcohol
in any form or amount.

Nearly all the captains, for instance, of our great trans-atlantic
liners, whose duties in storm or fog keep them on the bridge on
continuous duty for forty-eight, sixty, and even seventy-two hours at a
stretch, with thousands of lives depending upon their courage and their
judgment, are total abstainers. And while twenty-five years ago they
used to think that they could not go through these long sieges of storm
duty without plenty of wine or whiskey, they now find that they are far
better off without any alcoholic drink.

Another powerful force in the same direction is our insurance companies,
practically all of whom now will refuse to insure any man known
habitually to use alcohol to excess, because where lists have been kept
of their policy-holders showing which were users of alcohol and which
total abstainers, their records show that the death rate among the users
of alcohol is some twenty per cent greater than among the total
abstainers. A similar result has also been reached in the companies that
insure against sickness, whose drinking members average nearly twice as
many weeks of sickness during the year as the abstaining ones. So both
of these two great groups of business corporations are becoming powerful
agencies for the promotion of temperance.

Within fifty years from now the habitual use of alcohol will probably
have become quite rare. It is already becoming good form among the
best people not to drink; and the fashion will spread, as the bad
effects of alcohol become more generally understood.





Next: Tobacco

Previous: Beverages



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