Historical Perspective of Alcoholism

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Alcohol is the oldest and still probably the most widely used drug today. Some consider alcohol as an opponent but many consider it as an ally. Moderate amounts stimulate the mind and relax the muscles, but larger amounts impair coordination and judgment, finally producing coma and death. It is an addictive drug leading to alcoholism. Alcohol is known since antiquity to have some therapeutic value. Opium and alcohol had long been used as analgesics. Greek medicine had employed wine and vinegar in wound care. Now we know that alcohol is a good antiseptic. Alcohol has other values in modern medicine such as pain relief, delay labor, raising HDL level, etc. Pure ethanol is a colorless, flammable liquid (boiling point 78.5º C). Ethanol, produced by fermentation as in wine or beer or by synthesis, is a dilute solution and must be concentrated by distillation for making other alcoholic beverages or pure ethanol for injections. This article will review the origins of alcohol and its many uses throughout history.

Early Alcoholism
Since antiquity, alcohol-containing beverages played a vital part in the daily lives of ancient people. Beer, from fermented barley, is the earliest known alcoholic drink to man. Beer was an integral part of their religious ceremonies and mythology. Early civilizations found the mood-altering properties of beer supernatural, and the newfound state of intoxication was considered divine. Beer, it was thought, must contain a spirit or god, since drinking the liquid so possessed the spirit of the drinker. Remnants of this belief persist to modern times. We still refer to alcohol and alcoholic beverages as “spirits”. “The mouth of a perfectly happy man is filled with beer”, is an ancient Egyptian proverb. Indeed, numerous ancient Egyptian inscriptions and documents show that beer, together with bread, was a daily food. Beer was an important offering to the gods, and was placed in tombs for the afterlife. An inscription in the tomb of Ramses II (c. 1200 B.C.) reads: “And thou shall give me to eat until I am satisfied, and thou shalt give to me beer until I am drunk.” The ancient Greeks called beer “zythos”, which was derived from the Egyptian word “zythum”. The Romans brewed and drank “cerevisia”, named after Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. The Romans had a god Dionysus, or Bacchus, the god of wine, who they worshipped in bouts of alcoholic frenzy. The hangover plagued mankind. It was a top medical priority in the days of ancient Egypt. Cabbage juice was the Pharaoh’s remedy. For many hundreds of years we have looked upon this “old wives” tale with amusement. However, recent scientific studies have shown that cabbage juice can chelate some of alcohol’s byproducts after the liver has detoxified it. Ancient cultures brewed beer for religious ceremonies as well as for their own enjoyment. Drinking beer was the principal means by which worshippers achieved religious ecstasy. Beer occupied a major role in ancient literary repertoire. For example, the Finnish poetic saga, Kalewala, has 400 verses devoted to beer but only 200 were needed for the creation of the earth. According to the Edda, the great Nordic epic, wine was reserved for the gods, beer belonged to mortals, and mead [an alcoholic drink of fermented honey and water] to inhabitants of the realm of the dead. Although beer and brewing was known in many ancient cultures, the oldest proven records of brewing are about 5,500 years old and can be traced to Mesopotamia [ancient Iraq]. A vast repository of cuneiform writings from the area depicts beer and brewing, hence the Mesopotamians are credited with the first beer.The earliest account of barley is found on an ancient Sumerian engraving describing beer making. Beer made people feel “exhilarated, wonderful and blissful.” The Royal Cemetery of Ur, one of the most spectacular discoveries in ancient Mesopotamia, contains mid-3rd millennium BC tombs of kings and queens of the city of Ur. One of...
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