What Chinese Medicine Says About Alcohol

These beverages have a range of effects on the body that can be both helpful and harmful
October 31, 2020 Updated: November 2, 2020

I have had a number of memorable drinks in my life: a vodka gimlet sipped while gazing at the waters of Crater Lake in Oregon, or some pinot noirs enjoyed at a small vineyard tucked into the Willamette Valley countryside.

While alcohol is certainly part of my good memories, the core of these experiences was a celebration of fine moments in life.

As a society, we are mixed in our feelings about alcohol. We want to label it good or bad. A little is good, right? Since there’s resveratrol in red wine, does that make it OK? Should I cut drinking out altogether? The ups and downs of food fads and research highlighting different aspects of alcohol make it hard to know whether alcohol is an angel or a demon.

In Chinese medicine, alcohol also has been stereotyped as leaving your body damp and hot.

Dampness causes you to be unable to metabolize food and fluids well, so your body gets boggy and retains pockets of water or moisture. (Excess fat, edema, and even athlete’s foot are considered to be damp conditions.)

Alcohol also is considered hot, which means that the energetic end result of drinking it is that it warms you up, which can leave you restless, irritable, dried out, and too warm.

However, the nature of alcohol in Chinese medicine isn’t all bad.

Beer

Let’s start with beer. Beer is actually energetically cool. Its flavor is considered to be bitter and sweet. And while beer has the potential to be very dampening, the more bitter it is, the less dampening it actually becomes.

Regardless of how light or dark your beer is, too much can overwhelm your spleen and kidneys and the energetic systems associated with them. This messes up your digestion and water metabolism, and leaves you with dampness issues. In Chinese medicine, fat is also seen as a form of excess dampness, which is an interesting way to think of a “beer belly.”

This damp overwhelm may take a little longer to happen if you drink really dark beer, but can still arise. Over time, this dampness has the potential to turn into heat in your body, regardless of beer’s cooling nature.

There is good news for beer drinkers, though. Bitter dark beers are actually considered to be slightly nourishing for your body–but should not be considered as nutritional as say, um, a meal. And, because beer is considered cool, it’s an ideal choice in the summer and in warm climates.

Wine

Wine is considered to energetically warm, with red wine being warmer than white. I can confirm this, as after I’ve had a glass of red wine, my ears turn red and hot. Wine, like all alcoholic drinks, stimulates the movement of qi, but the light nature of wine is helpful in stimulating digestion after a heavy or rich meal.

Red wine is known to have resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant. However to reap the benefits found in wine, you would have to drink a lot, so many people simply resort to supplements to get enough resveratrol to affect their health.

In Chinese herbal medicine, some herbs and formulas are prepared with wine to add wine’s warming, sweet, sour, or bitter properties to the mix.

Hard Liquor

Spirits, such as gin, vodka, scotch, and tequila, are a different story from beer and wine. They are very good at moving stagnation and very dispersing.

Think of stagnation as your energetic engine seizing up. Spirits definitely get things moving. That said, spirits are hot and damp, and too much can quickly be toxic to your body. In Chinese medicine, overconsumption of spirits stress your liver and create a great deal of heat.

All alcoholic drinks are moving and dispersing in general. They loosen you up, give you a sense of well-being, and help you let go of the beast of a day you just had.

However, like everything in Chinese medicine–and life in general–a little is OK, but too much is overwhelming.

Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist and the author of “Simple Steps: The Chinese Way to Better Health.” This article was originally published on AcupunctureTwinCities.com