Libations for Longevity

     One of the most pleasant ways to do something good for your health is to drink a great tasting drink that's also good for you.  Every nationality, every culture, has their own favorite health drinks, and Greece is no exception.  And they've been enjoying these drinks for centuries, even millennia.


Popular Herb Teas

     The Greeks have several popular and distinctive herbal teas that taste great and have remarkable health benefits.  In addition to teas like Camomile, Linden flowers and St. John's Wort, which are also popular throughout the rest of Europe, the Greeks have a few of their own. 
     Perhaps the most popular and well-known of these is Lemon Verbena (Aloysia citriodora), so called because of its fresh, lemony scent and flavor.  The Greeks call it Luiza.  It's a mild diaphoretic, febrifuge and sedative.  Lemon Verbena is very useful as a stomachic and antispasmodic in various digestive complaints, like dyspepsia, indigestion, and gas, or flatulence.  By gently opening the pores and stimulating sweating, Lemon Verbena also benefits the skin. 
     Not so well-known outside of Greece, but very well-known and time honored within Greece, is a tea commonly called Shepherd's Tea or Mountain Tea, because it grows only at the higher alpine elevations.  The Greeks call it Tsai tou vou nou; its botanical name is Sideritis syriaca
     Shepherd's Tea is a very warming, stimulating beverage most known for its beneficial effects on the upper respiratory tract in relieving coughs and lung congestion.  It also benefits the stomach and digestion, as well as the immune system.  Scientific studies have shown that Shepherd's Tea has considerable immunomodulatory activity in reducing excessive inflammation and edema, as well as antimicrobial activity.  Shepherd's Tea also relieves mild anxiety and contains many antioxidants. 
     Another wondrous herbal beverage that's quintessentially Greek is Olive Leaf Tea
(Olea europaea
), which has many of the same antioxidants as Olive Oil.  It has a mild, pleasing flavor, not unlike that of Green Tea.  Olive Leaf Tea, and Olive Leaf extract, is best known for its antimicrobial properties; it's antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral.  Olive Leaf Tea also lowers blood pressure and blood cholesterol, and lowers blood sugar levels in diabetics.  The tea is also an energizer that's beneficial in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and for reducing the viral load in those suffering from AIDS. 
     Olive Leaf Tea is an all-round immune tonic and adaptogen whose antimicrobial and immune stimulating effects are believed to come from Oleuropein.  A gift from the goddess Athena, the olive tree is a natural wonder; exceedingly hardy and resistant to disease itself, many olive trees have lived for as long as three thousand years. 


Oxymel:  A Medicinal Drink

    A common medicinal preparation that dates back to antiquity is Oxymel, which is basically a mixture of honey and vinegar.  It has many uses, and is a part of many traditional medicines.
     Although Oxymel is basically just honey and vinegar, there are several different methods, or recipes, for preparing it.  The simplest method is just to mix together 4 parts honey with 1 part vinegar.  Apple cider vinegar is the kind most commonly used. 
     A more elaborate recipe is to thoroughly mix together one part of vinegar, one part of water and two parts of honey.  Then, simmer this mixture down slowly until only about a third of its original volume remains.  While you're boiling the oxymel down, skim off any scum or froth that rises to the surface. 
     After it's prepared, a supply of Oxymel is always kept handy for various uses.  Mix a spoonful of it into a glass of water for a refreshing medicinal drink that's both restorative and energizing and a cooling febrifuge, particularly for agues, or intermittent fevers.  Gargle with this drink to soothe and heal a sore throat. 
     Used full strength or in a less diluted form, Oxymel greatly aids in the expectoration of excess phlegm from the lungs and respiratory tract, opens the airways, and makes breathing easier.  Oxymel is also used as a base for medicated expectorant syrups, like Vinegar of Squills.  Or, it can be mixed into hot expectorant herb teas to enhance their effects.
     Dr. D. C. Jarvis authored a bestselling book in 1958 called Folk Medicine in which he touted honey and apple cider vinegar as a panacea or cure-all.  He used this ancient Oxymel preparation to treat arthritis, gout, high cholesterol, as a metabolic stimulant to promote weight loss, and for longevity and life extension. 


The Whey to Better Health

     Some 2500 years ago, Hippocrates used liquid whey, which he called serum, to strengthen constitutional immune resistance to disease and aid the adaptive powers of the organism in his patients.  Galen also did likewise.
     Whey is the liquid that is strained off and separated from the curds in making cheese.  It's rich in lactose, minerals, vitamins and special proteins with immune stimulating properties.  In Hippocrates' or Galen's day, the liquid whey, or serum, was used fresh.  Nowadays, that's not always possible; whey is often dried, and its solids are used.  But to retain its immune stimulating properties, the whey proteins must be kept native, or in their natural form, with a minimum of filtering, heat or processing. 
     Native whey proteins stimulate immunity and protect against cancer.  Intestinal immunity and beneficial intestinal bacteria are greatly benefitted by whey, which is their favorite food.  Whey has also helped to increase the tolerance of infants to formulas based on soy or cow's milk, and lessens the associated colic and allergic reactions. 
     Whey is also beneficial for the heart, liver, kidneys and intestines.  It has been recommended and used therapeutically in hepatitis, skin conditions, infections, edema, arthritis and rheumatism. 


The Greek Way of Wine

     The ancient Greeks didn't invent wine; nevertheless, they revered the powerful, intoxicating drink that comes from the fruit of the vine.  The gift of the god Dionysus to mankind, wine could give confort and joy and banish sorrow; it could also turn men into fools, or drive them mad. 
     The ancient Greeks used wine both as food and as medicine, and as an ingredient or medium for the taking of medicines.  They washed wounds with wine, which acted as a disinfectant.  They made medicinal wines by soaking various herbs in wine.
     In ancient Greek society, wine drinking was considered undesirable for a woman.  Most of the time, wine was mixed with water before drinking.  Drinking akraton, or unmixed wine, was considered to be vulgar and uncouth; it was also considered to make the spirits weak or feeble, and to lead to intoxication or madness. 
     Wines reserved for local usage were usually kept in wineskins.  Wine to be traded in commerce was poured into big terra cotta jugs, then finally decanted into amphoras sealed with pitch for retail sale.  The pine pitch imparted a certain balsamic aroma to the wine.  This is capitalized on in Retsina, a pine resin flavored white wine made by fermenting the wine in casks lined with pine pitch.  Sometimes, wine was also sweetened with honey.
     Sweetened or fortified wines also had their origins in ancient Greece and Rome.  Before the introduction of the cork, wine was not as stable, and didn't keep as well as wines do today.  To stabilize wines that were traded over long distances, they were sweetened and then fortified with distilled spirits, or brandy.  One such wine is Malaga wine, which is an ingredient of Galen's famous Theriac
     Modern research has shown wine to have many health benefits, chiefly for the heart and circulatory system.  These are due to flavonoids and polyphenols, which are chiefly contained in the skins; they're powerful antioxidants that disperse blood clots and protect against free radicals and the formation of cholesterol deposits and arterial plaque.  Because red wine is fermented with the skins, it's richer in these antioxidants. 
     Whether the wine be red or white, at least half of its effects in stimulating the heart and circulation come from its low to moderate alcohol content.  Alcohol is a vasodilator and circulatory stimulant whose dispersive, penetrating properties make it a great carrying agent for other medicinal ingredients and constituents of traditional medicinal formulas. 


Vermouth and Medicinal Wines

     The Bible recommends that we drink a little wine with our meals for the sake of the digestion.  The organic acids, enzymes and ferments in wine do indeed stimulate digestive activity.  But if we steep herbs that benefit and stimulate the digestion in wine to create medicinal wines, we synergistically multiply both the effects of the wine as well as those of the herbs.  The alcohol and organic acids in the wine are great at extracting the active medicinal constituents of the herbs. 
     The main herbs that are used for this purpose taste bitter, to complement the wine, which is sweet and sour.  The preparation of a digestive tonic made by soaking bitter herbs that stimulate the digestion in wine is called an aperitif; more commonly, it's called Bitters.
     Traditional healing wisdom says that, to be truly healthy, we need a good balance of all tastes in our diet.  But the bitter taste, being naturally unpleasant, tends to be avoided, and therefore deficient.  To compensate for this, we can sip on a little bitter medicinal wine, either before meals to awaken the appetite, or after meals, to stimulate the digestion.  A popular saying among herbalists goes, "Bitter to the tongue is sweet to the stomach." 
     Perhaps the most famous medicinal wine is Vermouth, which is red wine steeped in the herb Wormwood (Artemisia absinthum).  Its medicinal name is Vinum absinthita, and it is made by soaking a handful of Wormwood in a gallon, or about 3.5 liters, of red wine for a month or longer, in a well-stopped jar.
     Wormwood gets its name from being a vermifuge, or an herb used to expel intestinal worms and parasites.  It calms an agitated, irritated, inflamed or hyperacidic stomach and is a cholagogue, which stimulates the flow of bile.  And so, it is useful for many bilious liver and gall bladder problems, and restores the appetite.  It is also a febrifuge in intermittent fevers and an emmenagogue that improves the menstrual flow, hastens childbirth and expels the afterbirth. 
     Hippocrates used Vermouth, and prescribed it for jaundice, rheumatism, anemia and menstrual pains.  The ancient Greeks also believed that absinthe wine was an antidote against the poison of hemlock and mushrooms. 
     Other bitter tonic herbs that have been used in medicinal digestive wines and liqueurs include Gentian (Gentiana lutea), Blessed Thistle (Carduus benedictus), Chicory (Chicorium intybus), Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), Rhubarb root (Rheum palmatum) and Calamus root (Acorus calamus).  Because these herbs are quite bitter, their taste is improved with various sweet and/or pungent digestive tonics like Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), Ginger (Zingiber officinale), or Cardamom (Eleteria cardamomum).



Internet Resources

     In preparing this article, I used information from the following sources about the various health drinks mentioned:
     On popular Greek herbal teas for health, Lemon Verbena and Shepherd's Tea:
     On Olive Leaf Tea and Olive Leaf extract: www.olivetea.com
     On Oxymel:  www.naturalherbs.com
     On Whey:  www.healthywhey.org/benefits
     On Wine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_Ancient_Greece
     On honey and apple cider vinegar:  www.rosabay.com/apple_cider_vinegar.info.htm
     On Vermouth:  www.the-night.net