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Sources: 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 everywhe
e 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


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.