Where did the idea that alcohol was relaxing come from?
After a long stressful day, I often find myself sitting with a bottle of beer or a glass of wine. Such rituals are a sign that the working day is over and it’s time to have fun and relax. The problem is that drinking this way doesn’t work over time: regular (and excessive) drinking is associated with depression and bad sleep, and research shows it can also increase long-term anxiety levels.
Nevertheless, the idea that alcohol is relaxing remains a powerful myth. With evidence suggesting that many people started drinking more during the Covid-19 pandemic to try to relax, delving into the history of alcohol might provide some insight into why this myth has prevailed.
Throughout history, alcohol has often used in medicine and is considered to have many useful properties, especially as antiseptic and anesthetic. I studied how 19th and early 20th century explorers used the drink; the study of travelers can inform the scientific and medical understanding of alcohol because, in an era before clinical trials, medical writers drew on the explorers’ stories as evidence of the health effects of different foods and beverages. Thus, their writings can help us learn more about past approaches to alcohol and health.
Indeed, many Victorian arctic explorers drank a “warming” glass of rum after a long day of sledding. They reported that it helped them sleep, relax and relieve tension. Similarly, British travelers to East Africa often drank small amounts of alcohol at the end of a day’s travel, seeing it as a useful “medicine” that helped them cope with both the effects of the the fever and emotional strains of travel. In a travel advice guide published in 1883, George Dobson, Surgeon-Major to the British Army, noted that in hot climates “continuous work, such as that of the sportsman and traveller, cannot be maintained for a long time without the aid occasional and judicious consumption of alcohol”.
Health and balance
Initially and in small doses, alcohol appears to act as a stimulant, which makes your heart beat faster and gives you more energy. Soon, however, it acts as a depressant, inhibiting the action of the central nervous system, which slows down your thinking and reaction times. These health effects were particularly important in early 19th century medicine, as some medical theorists viewed the body as a system that needed to be kept in balance. And stimulants or depressants were considered an important way to restore balance when feeling unwell.
Over time, these views became increasingly unpopular among scientists and physicians and were replaced by theories of disease that sought to trace more specific causes of infection. For example, “germ theory”, which was first proposed in 1861, showed that many diseases were caused by microbes rather than climate. Similarly, British physicians were increasingly interested in the role of mosquitoes in the spread of malaria. These developments have led to new medical approaches aimed at preventing and treating common diseases. in hot regions.
But changing medical attitudes towards disease were not the only factor in the decline of medicinal consumption on expeditions. The growing criticism of expeditionary drinking was also the result of changing social and medicinal attitudes towards alcohol. It was largely due to the temperance movement, a campaign rooted in evangelical Christianity that sought to discourage (and sometimes outright ban) the sale of alcohol.
Even those who considered moderate alcohol consumption acceptable began to worry that it might actually be more dangerous in extreme weather conditions. The National Arctic Expedition (1875-1876), for example, was criticized for issuing a ration of rum, with suggestions that it had contributed to a scurvy epidemic would appear first among the heavy drinkers of the expedition.
Such criticisms meant that explorers made increasing efforts to emphasize that their drinking was moderate and “medicinal”. They often did this by drinking only certain types of alcoholic beverages which they believed had greater medicinal qualities. This normally meant brandy, Champagne, or certain types of wine. But there were fierce disagreements among doctors over which drinks were healthier.
Indeed, many of these drinks were considered medicinal for no other reason than the fact that they were expensive. Today, these beverages are rarely considered medicinal, but medical concerns about the effects of different alcoholic beverages have not gone away. And, just like their Victorian counterparts, many contemporary physicians have suggested certain types of drinks are healthier than others.
Stimulants: alcohol or caffeine
Like recent search by my colleague Kim Walker and myself, stimulants (including alcohol) remained a popular medicine for European travelers to Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was partly because they were relatively cheap, easy to administer, and produced noticeable effects on the mind and body of the drinker. They were also meant to remedy the lingering belief that hot climates were physically damaging and psychologically depressing.
In the same 1883 travel guide, Dobson complained of the “depressing effects of climate” to justify his prescription of alcohol. Therefore, some travelers viewed alcoholic beverages as useful stimulants to help combat these effects. Even those who opposed expeditionary drinking still saw stimulating drinks as important, but prescribed “a cup of fragrant coffee” rather.
The medical understanding of alcohol consumption has changed significantly over the past 150 years. But the study of how Victorian and Edwardian explorers approached alcohol also shows important continuities. Then, as now, drinking practices are shaped not only by medical knowledge, but also by cultural attitudes towards different beverages and the environments in which we consume them.
Edward Armston-Sheret holds a PhD from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway University in London. This article first appeared on The Conversation.