Tiffin Project


by Todd Caldecott on May 18, 2011

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At the height of summer when the branches weigh heavy with fruit and the wafting sweetness saturates the air, the wild yeasts have already begun to feed. These ubiquitous fungi found on the skins ferment the fruit sugars to provide them with the energy needed for their growth and reproduction, and in so doing, just happen to produce alcohol. Since these yeasts are everywhere we all eat some amount of alcohol in our food, and thus consuming alcohol is as natural as eating. But while our hunter-gatherer ancestors no doubt ate wild fermented fruit, and maybe on occasion enough to get mildly inebriated, it wasn’t until about 9000 years ago that we learned how to make wine. It perhaps has its origins in ancient China, but very early evidence of wine production has also been found in places such as modern-day Iran, a country that now forbids alcohol consumption. Not even considering the ancient Zorastrian culture of Iran, Islamic Persian literature is replete with references to wine, in the poems of Hafez and Sadi who speak of wine as a representation of divine bliss. From the drinking songs of college fraternities and sports fans, to intimate moments with family and friends, alcohol is a beverage of transcendence, as a way to leave behind our petty inhibitions and boundaries to share in the delight and ecstasy of everything melting away.

Wine has long been a part of Indian culture as well. In a 6th century Ayurvedic text called the Ashtanga Hrdaya, two entire chapters are devoted to the subject of wine. It outlines the properties of wine and its effects on the body, the dangers of overconsumption, intoxication and addiction, and how to prevent and treat these problems. Its author Vagbhata says that wine is a means to happiness, an elixir that brings about relief from the day to day monotony of everyday life. As the Ashtanga Hrdaya says, “if he does not drink wine at least once, what else can he enjoy in this troublesome life of a householder?”

According to Ayurveda, all alcohol has hot and dry quality that quickly penetrates the tissues of the body, overcoming both the physical and mental qualities of inertia. In stimulating the body however alcohol acts like a poison, catalyzing the innate vitality (ojas) towards forcible expression. With alcohol we become happy and joyful as this energy is released, but this loss also leads to mental instability, disordered thinking and impaired actions. The Ashtanga Hrdaya says that the improper consumption of wine is chief among the innumerable paths to self-destruction, leading to the loss of dharma (virtue), artha (prosperity) and kama (happiness).

Alcohol molecule

Science supports the idea in Ayurveda that alcohol is a poison. There is clear evidence that consuming as little as two shots of distilled liquor, two glasses of wine or a pint of beer can produce liver injury when consumed on a daily basis. After consumption blood alcohol levels increase dramatically and alcohol diffuses into the brain, producing the tipsy euphoria or buzz we get when we’re a little drunk. The alcohol then passes through the liver where it is metabolized into acetylaldehyde, which is highly toxic to both the liver and other organs, until it is acted upon by cellular antioxidants and reduced to acetic acid. Detoxifying acetylaldehyde places great stress on the liver and interferes with normal functions, inhibiting gluconeogenesis and protein synthesis. It increases fatty acid synthesis leading to fatty liver (steatosis), in which the liver becomes enlarged and yellowed from the accumulation of peroxidized fat. This ‘stagnation’ of the liver is one of the major underlying factors of hangover, and is best treated with supportive measures such as antioxidant-rich foods, and especially bitter-tasting herbs, vegetables and fruit. While fatty liver is completely reversible, with chronic alcohol consumption the liver cells become inflamed (hepatitis) and eventually irreversible scarring (cirrhosis) begins to take place. Chronic alcohol consumption also induces a hypermetabolic state, increasing the activity of detoxifying enzymes, increasing tolerance to both alcohol and drugs, often leading to multiple substance abuse patterns.

To avoid these problems the Ashtanga Hrdaya prescribes a regimen for drinking alcohol (madyapanavidhi):

1. Make sure you are in good health. Alcohol is a kind poison that taxes the body, and if the body is weak alcohol consumption leads to further weakness and decline. In general, this rule refers to all intoxicating substances, but among them alcohol is prominent due to its particularly toxic effects.

2. Make sure you are in a good mood. Alcohol may make you happy for a while; but if you were unhappy before drinking, that state of mind returns before the negative effects of alcohol have worn off, leading to further unhappiness. In Ayurveda happiness is related to ojas – more vitality means more happiness. If you are using alcohol to change your mood, look for other things that give you pleasure and enjoyment first.

3. Make sure that you will be safe. Ayurveda recommends drinking at home or a specific location, where you can’t get hurt or hurt others, with sober people (“physicians”) watching over you. Travel is not recommended while drinking.

4. Make sure you are celebrating! Drinking alcohol is a celebration, a sudden release of energy that is to be shared and enjoyed with good company and good food. Alcohol is particularly celebrated in the Ashtanga Hrdaya as an aphrodisiac, and some of the suggestive passages of Ayurveda are found in its description of wine, and how we can enjoy it with our beloved.

5. Make sure to drink in moderation. Have no more than two servings per event. That’s enough to get pleasantly drunk for more people, and still not lose the ability to function. For more intimate settings the Ashtanga Hrdaya allows up to three drinks just to “please the wife”…

6. Make sure to take rasayanas after drinking. Before retiring for the evening, take herbs that support the liver and build ojas. Examples include amla, peony, shatavari, punarnava, barberry, kudzu, turmeric, licorice and ginger, taken with honey and ghee, or with boiled milk.

Alcohol can be fermented or distilled. Common fermented beverages include wine, beer and mead. Wine is considered best for health, and because Ayurveda considers grapes to be among the best fruits, grape wine is the best among the different types of wine. At about 10-14% alcohol, wine (madya) has a sour taste and a hot, dry quality that stimulates the appetite, promotes circulation, benefits the heart and reduces vata and kapha. Red wine is richer in tannins, and has a drier and hotter quality than white wine that can aggravate pitta. Red wine is less likely to promote congestion and is best consumed in the winter and cold weather. White wine is more congesting and cooling in nature, better for pitta, and is reserved for warmer weather and warm climates. Wine can also be prepared with other fruits besides grapes, as well as with different herbs and flowers. In Ayurveda medicinal wines called arishta are used extensively in the treatment in a number of diseases and condition, as they are also used in both Chinese and Western herbal medicine.

Beer (sura) has lower amounts of alcohol than wine, averaging from about 4-9% depending on the preparation. Unlike wine, beer is not good for digestion and tends to create congestion and weight gain. Rice beer (salisura) is considered to be the best among beers, whereas barley beer (yavasura) is considered inferior. In general beer is useful for nourishment and for promoting breastmilk production. Its properties also depend on the kind herbs the beer is fermented with. In India beer was often fermented with a number of herbs such as punarnava (Boerhavia diffusa) and bibhitaki (Terminalia belerica), both of which are rejuvenating plants that are good for health. Today most beer is made with hops (Humulus lupulus), a bitter-tasting herb with sedative properties that contains the estrogen 8-prenylnaringenin that alters sexual function. In the Middle Ages men refused to pick hops because it made their testes shrink, and hence hop-picking and beer-making became a woman’s job. Each tavern produced its own unique blend of herbs to flavor the beer, some recipes using psychoactive plants such as henbane (Hyocyamus niger) and belladonna (Atropa belladonna) – hence the myth of the witch and the devilish effects of her cauldron’s brew.

Mead (madhasava) is a kind of wine prepared by diluting honey with water and then either relying upon wild or added yeasts to ferment it. Unlike wine mead is often flavored with different herbs, spices, fruits and flowers. Prepared simply, mead is light and easier to digest than wine, and is stated to be good for skin problems and urinary disorders. Like the medicinal wines called arishta in Ayurveda, a separate class of medicinal meads called asava are used in a similar manner.

Distilled liquor is prepared by boiling off the alcohol from a fermented mash of fruits, grains and just about any carbohydrate-rich food or alcohol. Examples include brandy (wine), gin (wine and herbs), vodka (corn or potatoes), whiskey (barley, wheat, rye, corn), tequila (agave) and rum (sugar). Distillation as a technique has been used in Ayurveda for thousands of years, and has long been used throughout the Middle East. Walk into any Persian grocery store and more than one aisle will be filled with different types of hydrosols, a distillate made from boiled herbs. Although distillation was known to the ancients it was the Arab physician Ibn Sina that developed the refrigerated coil. This allows the distillate to condense quickly, dramatically speeding up the process of extraction. By about the 12th century the first evidence of alcohol distillation is found in Europe, and liquor soon begins to rival other traditional beverages. Often times the variety of distilled liquor was marketed as a kind of medicinal tonic, such as gin made with juniper, a herb traditionally used to detoxify the body and enhance digestion. In the 19th century the continuous still was invented and distilled liquor production literally flooded the marketplace, giving rise to a host of social issues that sparked the rise of the Temperance movement and prohibiton in North America.

Distilled liquor can range in alcohol content anywhere from 30% (60 proof) up to 95% (180 proof), with most commercial distillates below 50% (100 proof). The higher alcohol content means that distilled liquor has a very pungent flavor, and a very hot and dry quality. It has a strong stimulatory effect upon circulation and digestion, and is an effective medicine to treat coldness and reduce kapha. Distilled liquor is a suitable alternative for people with yeast problems (candidiasis), consumed dry, straight or with ice, as an alternative to fermented alcohol and sweetened beverages. Distilled alcohol however aggravates both pitta and vata, and should be avoided in warm weather and climates.

~ Todd Caldecott


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