Drinking alcohol for its intoxicating effects is one of humanity’s oldest traditions. From weddings to New Year’s parties, many celebrations involve spirits in some way, shape, or form. To characterize alcohol solely as a recreational drug, however, does it a disservice. In the eyes of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners, it’s much, much more than that. In fact, under the right circumstances, it’s often seen as a nourishing tonic.
Long hailed for its medicinal properties, alcohol played an important role in the development of TCM thousands of years ago, according to a 2011 article published in The American Journal of Chinese Medicine. To this day, it is thought to have health benefits. When consumed in moderation, alcohol can boost blood circulation, cardiovascular health, and digestion, says Zoey Xinyi Gong, a TCM chef, food therapist, and registered dietitian based in Brooklyn. “We usually recommend 1 to 2 tablespoons a day, which is pretty much just an ounce. You know, half-a-shot-a-day kind of thing,” Gong says. “So it's never a lot.”
Some studies have linked moderate drinking to improved health outcomes, but, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Both TCM practitioners and Western doctors say drinking to excess should be avoided. Excessive alcohol use — defined by the CDC as binge drinking, heavy drinking, and alcohol use by pregnant women and people under 21 — is one of the leading preventable causes of death in the U.S. Regarding heavy and excessive drinking, “There is nothing good about that, definitely not,” Irina Logman, a TCM practitioner and the founder and owner of the Advanced Holistic Center, says. “This is just not good for your liver, not good for your brain. This is just not good, period.”
Rules Of Thumb
TCM holds that alcohol is believed to cause heat and dampness within the body and can therefore help allay health problems stemming from opposing forces — including anxiety, a symptom of excess cold. Thus, a person who complains of feeling chilly or tense might actually be “prescribed” alcohol, according to Gong. By the same token, Gong says, a person who struggles with the effects of excess heat — e.g., inflammation, susceptibility to infection, and skin conditions such as eczema — might be discouraged from drinking.
Summarizing, Logman says how your body responds to alcohol depends on your constitution. “Sometimes it can be even therapeutic for some people, where [as] it can be very harmful for others,” Logman says.
Considering that alcohol is associated with heat, logic follows that winter, the coldest season, would be considered prime drinking time, an inference that Gong and Logman confirm. It’s all about balancing your external environment with your internal one, according to Logman. Neither Gong nor Logman recommend drinking at all in the summertime. Instead, try a cooling non-alcoholic beverage such as cucumber juice, watermelon juice, or corn silk tea.
“Drinking alcohol on a hot summer day is bad versus drinking alcohol during the colder months when it's cold outside and you want to increase your body temperature,” Logman says, explaining that spirits can be hard on the body during the summer seasons.
While classic TCM texts don’t really distinguish between different varieties of alcohol — “TCM talks about alcohol just kind of as a whole,” Gong says — she prefers those made with herbs and/or spices because those ingredients can address stomach issues such as indigestion and nausea. One example is fernet, an Italian herbal liqueur that often incorporates myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron. Other herbal liqueurs, such as the French Chartreuse and the German Jägermeister, would also qualify.
Logman recommends wine, calling it “an ancient drink that can be beneficial.” Generally, she advises drinking alcohol straight or at least minimizing add-ons such as coloring and flavoring agents, especially those that are artificial. “Everything straight is better because with cocktails, you're mixing too many flavors and it's overwhelming to the digestive system,” Logman says, adding, “It’s never a good thing.”
How To Drink The TCM Way
In addition to what and when you drink, how you drink also matters to an extent, according to Gong and Logman. Consume beverages warm if possible; TCM discourages the use of ice and ice cubes. “We don't like ice in Chinese medicine,” Gong says. “We think it really disturbs our digestion, and that can cause stagnation.” Something like mulled wine or a hot toddy, she says, is an excellent choice. (Honey, another ingredient popular with TCM practitioners, also figures prominently in hot toddy recipes.)
If you’re not planning to abstain from alcohol in the summertime, you might be hard-pressed to find mulled wine or a hot toddy at that time of year, so Gong advises opting for a light, refreshing cocktail such as a Pimm’s cup or a reduced-sugar mojito instead. “Even just a dirty martini could be good,” she says. “You know, it's very clean, nothing too crazy.”
While drinking, take measures to counteract the heat and dampness conferred by alcohol. Drinking water will keep you hydrated, and eating food definitely helps you stabilize and not get drunk, Logman says. Gong suggests sipping on a herbal tea such as chrysanthemum tea or snacking on kudzu — a plant whose roots and other components are used in TCM to treat fever, diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism, menopausal symptoms, neck or eye pain, and the common cold, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Herbal tea and kudzu, both of which have “gently cooling” effects and a “liver-protective function,” are readily available online and at stores, Gong says. While studies on the effects of kudzu in human beings are limited, and systematic reviews have found no hard evidence for any benefits, some laboratory research does indicate the vine has neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Not only are herbal tea and kudzu effective at preventing hangovers, they are also effective at treating them, Gong says, praising kudzu flower in particular as a “fantastic” but little-known remedy. If you wake up the morning after a party feeling as though you’ve been hit by a truck, make sure to replenish the fluids you lost the night before. “Too much alcohol really dehydrates you,” Gong says.
Drink some bone broth and consider adding in a dash of ginger juice if you’re experiencing nausea. Besides ginger, shiso leaves can help soothe a churning stomach, according to Gong. (Chef and consultant Austin Vantastic’s Ayurvedic veggie rice recipe features shiso leaves.) If you’re interested and the service is available nearby, you can also book a massage or an acupuncture session to speed up the recovery process.
“What we are doing is not really stop[ping] people from drinking, but kind of harm reduction. Small changes,” Gong says of the TCM approach to alcohol consumption. “And that's what Chinese medicines are all about: to help people balance things out while still be[ing] able to enjoy themselves.”
Zoey Xinyi Gong, Brooklyn-based traditional Chinese medicine chef, food therapist, registered dietitian, and educator. https://www.zoeyxinyigong.com/
Irina Logman, DACM, LAc, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and the founder and owner of the Advanced Holistic Center (locations in New York City and Florida). https://advancedholisticcenter.com/
Studies and Sources Referenced:
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Last reviewed April 19, 2022) “Alcohol and Public Health: Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol.” https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Last reviewed July 11, 2022) “Excessive Alcohol Use.” https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/alcohol.htm
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Last reviewed July 6, 2022) “Alcohol and Public Health: Deaths from Excessive Alcohol Use in the United States.” https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html
Liu, Q, et al. (2011) “Traditional Chinese medicine for treatment of alcoholism: from ancient to modern.” The American Journal of Chinese Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21213394/
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (Updated Feb. 4, 2022) “Kudzu: Purported Benefits, Side Effects & More.” https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/kudzu
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