Wine as Medicine: Part One – The Ancient World

By Dr. Philip Norrie, MBBS, MA, MSc, MSocSc (Hons), PhD, MD (cand)

iStock_000010970965Small -baccus Wine was widely used as a medicine in the ancient world. In fact, wine is man’s oldest known medicine. It was well suited to this purpose for a variety of reasons. First, it was easy to make. Ancient winemakers used whatever grapes were available and relied on the natural yeast on the grapes to ferment the wine. Second, wine was easy to drink, and the high alcohol content made dissolving other medicines much easier. Third, wine made crude medicines palatable. Imagine drinking the flesh of a pit viper (a Chinese prescription for stomach pain) without the wine content! Fourth, the intoxicating effects of wine eased the burden of most complaints. Infectious diseases were the main cause of death in the ancient world. Wine contains antioxidants and alcohol, which make it a very good antiseptic. So, wounds were soaked in wine, either using cloth or a sea sponge, to prevent or treat infection. It was also added to local water to prevent various waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery. Other medicinal uses for wine, besides being used as a mixing medium for other medicines, included:

  • use as a hypnotic to send people to sleep
  • use as a treatment for anemia
  • use as a cooling agent to reduce fevers by soaking the patient in wine or rubbing the patient with wine
  • use as a cough remedy (when combined with honey)
  • use as a treatment for gastrointestinal ailments
  • use as a treatment to restore the appetite of the sick
  • use as a diuretic
  • use as a sedative or tranquilizer
  • use as an anti-nauseant

Many ancient cultures used wine as medicine. The ancient Chinese created various remedies by mixing plants, minerals and even animal parts with wine. The ancient Egyptians used wine as a medicine as far back as 3000 BC as shown by medical papyri known today. They frequently used wine as a mixing medium or solvent in which they mixed and blended other medicines. Ancient Mesopotamians also used wine as medicine as evidenced by the earliest known medical handbook: a Sumerian pharmacopoeia written on clay tablets dated circa 2200 to 2100 BC. In India, during the Vedic period (2500 to 200 BC), wine was worshipped as the liquid god Soma because of its medicinal attributes. The Vedas, the Hindus’ most ancient sacred texts, include a life science and medical section called Ayur-Veda, part of which deals extensively with the use of wine as a medicine. Even the Jewish Talmud, written between 536 BC and 427 AD, makes reference to wine as medicine: “Wine taken in moderation induces appetite and is beneficial to health. [...] Wine is the greatest of medicines. Where wine is lacking, drugs are necessary.”

The ancient Greeks played a particularly important role in promoting the use of wine as medicine. Greek physicians were the first to prescribe wine undiluted, and it was one of their most recommended medicines. Hippocrates (460–377 BC), who is recognized as the Father of Western Medicine because he was the first to claim that disease was not due to the wrath of the gods but due to poor nutrition or disease, wrote about using wine extensively. He said, “Wine is fit for man in a wonderful way, providing it is taken with good sense by the sick as well as the healthy.” Asclepiades of Bithynia (124–40 BC), another famous Greek physician, wrote an essay about the virtues of wine entitled “Concerning the Dosage of Wine.” Dioscorides (40–90 AD), the founder of the study of medicinal substances as an applied science and author of one of the first complete medical textbooks “De Universa Medicina,” was also a great advocate of the use of wine as a medicine. In it, he writes: “In general wine warms the body, it is digestible, increases the appetite, helps the sleep and has reviving properties.” Finally Galen (131–201 AD), who practiced mainly in Rome where he cared for the gladiators as well as the general public, became well versed in treating combat wounds and advocated the use of wine as an antiseptic. He developed many drug combinations mixed with wine which became known as Galenicals. These Galenicals went on to dominate medical prescribing in Europe and the Middle East for the next 1,500 years!

The Roman Empire not only spread viticulture throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, but they also spread Greek physicians’ knowledge about the use of wine as a medicine. One of the earliest Roman physicians, Aurelius Cornelius Celsus (25 BC–37 AD), who wrote the medical tome “De Medicina,” also wrote about the therapeutic uses of wines from different regions of Italy, Sicily and Greece. The great Roman scientist Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) also advocated the use of wine as medicine. His work “Historia Naturalis,” the unique encyclopedia about plants and medicine, listed over one hundred different wines to be used as medicines. He also came up with the famous quotes “In vino sanitas” (“In wine there is health”) and “In vino veritas” (“In wine there is truth”). For more on how wine has been used as medicine throughout the ages, see Wine as Medicine: Part Two – The Middle Ages and Wine as Medicine: Part Three – The Modern Age.

Dr. Norrie, a Family Physician and a Conjoint Senior Lecturer in the Medical Faculty at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, is also a wine and medical historian. Dr. Norrie has written 15 books on wine and medical history and has been made a member of the Renaud Society (named after Prof. Serge Renaud of the French Paradox fame) for his services to wine and health internationally. Dr. Norrie is also the inventor and patent holder of the world’s first high-dose Resveratrol-Enhanced Wine—REW.