Tauting the Health Benefits of a spirit is a popular topic. You don’t have to look far to find numerous, lightly sourced pieces claiming that there are definitive health benefits to yours (and mine) favorite drinks.
Most of these articles make a simple mistake— that certain organic plant materials “carry over” in the distillation process. This is the same error committed when people think that because the a spirit is distilled from wheat, that there must be gluten the gin (there isn’t). Certain organic molecules are not capable of being volatilized. That is, they cannot be heated, evaporate into the gas phase, and be re-condensed into liquid.
[Note: an exception does exist to the organic molecules when discussing compounded gins, where botanicals are macerated directly in spirit and do not undergo secondary distillation]
It has been said that, “Juniper berries are full of antioxidants and boost the regenerating cells in your body for smoother, healthier looking skin” [source], or “gin has high levels of antioxidants which can help neutralize carcinogenic free radicals, the major cause of cancer” [source].
A 2011 study comparing the properties of red wine, a drink with “high polyphenolic content” and gin, a drink with “no polyphenolic content,” found that the presence of polyphenols were correlated with antioxidant properties1. It similarly did find some evidence that there are general cardiovascular benefits from consuming alcohol, such as “increasing HDL-C;” however, that small benefit to your “good cholesterol” is rarely mentioned.
In other words, gin should not be looked to as a source of antioxidants. Juniper berries do have high polyphenolic content2 and themselves, have antioxidant properties3.
Finding: There’s little evidence for high anti-oxidant levels in your gin.
Sugar and calories
The calorie and sugar content is often mentioned. “You will have a happier and slimmer waistline since gin is one of the least calorific spirits with 97 calories per shot” [source]. Other pieces go further and provide specific medical recommendations, especially to diabetics: “Studies have been made and researchers have found out that gin and other tonics are good for patients with type 1 diabetes.” [source]
However, not all products are London Dry, and some do indeed include sugar. Overall calorie content in gin is largely from the 7 calories per gram of ethanol; and therefore it is indeed lower in calories than some spirits. However, to say its meaningfully different from say vodka, is a gross overstatement.
If you drink your gin neat, or with soda water— you’re drinking the lowest calorie cocktail you can have. Whether 100 calories per 1.5 oz. counts as “low calorie” is in the eye of the beholder.
Finding: Gin is lower in calories and sugar and than other spirits.
Good for the kidneys
Gin’s “diuretic” properties are often cited. “Being a diuretic, if taken in moderation and in right quantities, gin can help keep the liver healthy by preventing bloating and reducing water retention” [source]. “Juniper berries help stop water retention in your body, allowing you to pass more water than any other alcohol, This means that more of the harmful toxins and bacteria which you consume when you drink alcohol are flushed out your system” [source]. Also big on stopping bloating [source]. It’s even recently been given credit for helping alleviate coughs [source].
“The essential oil of juniper berry has diuretic properties, gastrointestinal irritant and
antiseptic properties. The diuretic action of juniper is primarily due to its essential oil, which contains terpinene-4-ol.”4, 5 Yes, this molecule has been discovered in the aromatic profiles of distilled gin; however, nowhere near the quantities found in raw6, juniper berries.
Finding: If terpinene-4-ol does indeed provide diuretic benefits, there’s a slim chance gin might— if the gin distillers pair juniper with other botanicals that contain it in large amounts. But there’s not a lot of evidence that gin itself exhibits those properties in any major way.
Mental health benefits
“A recent survey from Public Health Wales and Kings College London quizzed 29,836 people in 21 countries to find that almost half of people surveyed said they felt sexier and more in the mood when sipping on spirits like gin.” [source]
While “feeling sexy” is a positive emotion, other negative emotions were found. For example 29.8% of people self-reported feeling “aggressive” when drinking spirits. Only 7.1% reported the same for red wine7. “Social mood enhancement has also been found to be the most highly endorsed reason for drinking, with alcohol consumption being strongly associated with short-term increases in self-reported positive mood, decreases in negative mood and increases in levels of social bonding8”
Finding: If you cherry pick the data, you can say it’s good for mental health. You can also cherry pick the data and call gin drinkers “psychopaths,” so proceed at your own risk.
It will prevent or help arthritis
“The juniper super berry was a traditional remedy for the suffering of conditions like arthritis and rheumatism” [source]. “Raisins that are soaked in gin are perfect, and you can prepare and store them in a jar and consume them daily to get the benefits” [source].
This “folk” remedy dates back of the 1990’s. A 2019 study found that Rheumatoid Arthritis patients in the United States did cite “gin soaked raisins” as among the alternative medicines they were seeking and using9. Another study found, “Those with longer disease duration were significantly more likely to have ever used raisins soaked in vodka/gin […] [and] were significantly more likely to drink alcoholic beverages to relieve RA-related anxiety and stress.10”
Studies of the actual effects are few and far between. One study found evidence for compounds in Junperius sabina having anti-arthritic properties11. However, flavonoids are not found in distilled gins.
Findings: Little to no dedicated research has been conducted on this folk cure; however, preliminary data suggests that the compounds responsible for positive affects are not able to be distilled.
1 Estruch, R., Sacanella, E., Mota, F., Chiva-Blanch, G., Antúnez, E., Casals, E., … Lamuela-Raventos, R. M. (2011). Moderate consumption of red wine, but not gin, decreases erythrocyte superoxide dismutase activity: A randomised cross-over trial☆. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 21(1), 46–53. doi:10.1016/j.numecd.2009.07.0
2 Elboughdiri, Noureddine, et al. “Enhancing the extraction of phenolic compounds from Juniper Berries using the box-behnken design.” ACS omega 5.43 (2020): 27990-28000. [source]
3 Höferl, Martina, et al. “Chemical composition and antioxidant properties of Juniper berry (Juniperus communis L.) essential oil. Action of the essential oil on the antioxidant protection of Saccharomyces cerevisiae model organism.” Antioxidants 3.1 (2014): 81-98. [source]
4 Hancianu, M., et al. “Comparative study of volatile constituents and antimicrobial activity of Juniperi fructus samples for pharmaceutical use.” Proceedings from the Third Conference on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Southeast European Countries, Belgrade, Serbia, 5-8 September 2004. Institute for Medicinal Plant Research and Association for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of Southeast European Countries (AMAPSEEC), 2006.
5 Pepeljnjak, Stjepan, et al. “Antimicrobial activity of juniper berry essential oil (Juniperus communis L., Cupressaceae).” Acta pharmaceutica 55.4 (2005): 417-422.
6 Vichi, Stefania, et al. “Characterization of volatiles in different dry gins.” Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 53.26 (2005): 10154-10160.
7 Ashton, Kathryn, et al. “Do emotions related to alcohol consumption differ by alcohol type? An international cross-sectional survey of emotions associated with alcohol consumption and influence on drink choice in different settings.” BMJ open 7.10 (2017): e016089.
8 Wiers RW , Beckers L ,Houben K , et al. A short fuse after alcohol: implicit power associations predict aggressiveness after alcohol consumption in young heavy drinkers with limited executive control. Pharmacol Biochem Behav 2009;93:300–5.
9 DeSalvo, J. C., Skiba, M. B., Howe, C. L., Haiber, K. E., & Funk, J. L. (2018). Natural Product Dietary Supplement Use by Individuals with Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Scoping Review. Arthritis Care & Research. doi:10.1002/acr.23696
10 Tamhane, Ashutosh, et al. “Complementary and alternative medicine use in African Americans with rheumatoid arthritis.” Arthritis care & research 66.2 (2014): 180-189.
11 Zhao J, Liu T, Xu F, You S, Xu F, Li C, and Gu Z. Anti-arthritic effects of total flavonoids from Juniperus sabina on complete Freund’s adjuvant induced arthritis in rats. Pharmacognosy Magazine 2016;47:178-183.