. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vodka for the Cure

When 18th-century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus tried vodka during a trip to Russia, the liquid inspired him to write a treatise, "Vodka in the Hands of a Philosopher, Philistine, and Medic."

"This drink has a magical power," he wrote. "It strengthens the weak, and revives those who have fainted. Those tired after work and physical activity can return their life forces by this drink much sooner than by nourishment. ... It works as a diuretic, an appetizer, an antitoxin..."

More than two centuries later, the health sections of Moscow bookstores feature such titles as "Vodka Therapy," "Curing with Vodka. Fabulous Recipes for the Cure," "Therapy with Vodka and Moonshine" ... the list goes on. And these are all titles that were published last year.

When it first appeared in Russia, the word "vodka" was used to describe medicinal tinctures that were sold in apothecaries. Vodka can still be used as a disinfectant, since it is essentially diluted alcohol, said Valery Myakin, head doctor in Moscow's Narkolog rehabilitation center. When doctors or medical supplies are not within reach, vodka might be a more readily available alternative to treat a wound.

Another way to use vodka externally is in cases of high fever. Myakin confirmed that since alcohol evaporates faster than water, fever could be reduced by rubbing vodka onto a patient's body.

Michael Eckels / MT
As a medicine, vodka can be a double-edged sword: Doctors say "patients" have trouble stopping at the prescribed dose.
Controversies about the supposed health benefits of vodka mostly revolve around drinking it, but even Myakin said that up to 50 grams of vodka a day can actually be beneficial: "Small amounts of quality vodka can help prevent atherosclerosis," he said. "But unfortunately few people stop at that, since our drinking culture and traditions have been totally distorted."

In January, Narkolog and other such centers were overflowing with clients who had evidently overmedicated themselves during the winter holidays.

Ironically, the popular books list vodka recipes for curing alcoholism. All you have to do, as one of them says, is: "Get five to seven green forest bugs and let them sit in a glass of vodka for several days. Give the infused vodka to the patient without telling him what it is." That concoction is supposed to turn the "patient" off from alcohol for good.

One rumored benefit of vodka is that it is an antidote to radiation. During the Chernobyl catastrophe, for example, people in Pripyat, a city within the zone of nuclear contamination, drank vodka to "deactivate" the radiation process. Grigory Medvedev, an atomic engineer who worked at the site, documents this in his novel "Nuclear Tan."

How exactly does alcohol supposedly protect the body from radiation? "Ethyl alcohol ties up and blocks destructive free radicals that are formed in the process of radiation," said Yury Zharkov, a narcologist at the Guta Clinic medical center. "About 150 grams of alcohol would be consumed prior to entering a source of gamma radiation, such as a reactor on a submarine," he said.

Michael Eckels / MT
Avoiding fake "medicine" is now easier with improved bottling, as this old-versus-new exhibit in the Vodka Museum shows.
Some specialists disagree: "Alcohol has no radioprotective qualities, this has been proven when some doctors prescribed vodka to patients with acute radiation syndrome from atomic submarine accidents. There was absolutely no effect," said Professor Yury Bonitenko, head doctor at the All-Russia Center of Extreme and Radiation Medicine in St. Petersburg. "The only thing that can have a tiny neutralizing effect is red wine because it contains tannins, but in cases of high radiation, the effect is ­negligible."

Apparently, in protecting from radiation, vodka is not only losing out to red wine, but also to beer: "There was some interesting research published in Japan in 2002 showing that if a person drinks 700 milliliters of beer half an hour before giving a blood sample that is exposed to radiation, the chromosome damage effect is reduced by about 25 percent," said Dr. David Lloyd of the British Health Protection Agency. "But in the end, the researchers concluded that it is not the alcohol itself that acts as a radioprotector, but some other constituents of the beer." In any case, "it is not very helpful if, in protecting yourself from radiation, you kill yourself in a drunken car accident," he added.

Another widespread myth states that knocking back a few drinks helps "disinfect" your body after swimming in a polluted river or eating dubious food. Zharkov refuted this claim, adding that some people perpetuate myths of alcohol's benefits to find yet another reason to toast one another.

If you nevertheless decide to check out vodka's healing powers, make sure you don't buy fake vodka, which was the cause of hundreds of hospitalizations and even deaths last autumn.

Some of these recent surrogate ­alcohol poisonings resulted from medical alcohol being advertised as vodka. In December, the Regnum news agency reported that the antiseptic Marat had been sold in bottles similar to those of Stolichnaya vodka. Antiseptics contain high levels of methyl alcohol, which can be poisonous and cause blindness.

Myakin of Narkolog confirmed that there was an emergency antidote to methyl alcohol poisoning, however: a half glass of diluted ethyl alcohol, or vodka.