For many, alcohol and travel go hand-in-hand. Even when you're not in wine country, you're likely celebrating your respite from responsibility with a tipple or two. And though overindulging while traveling can wreak havoc on your immune system, studies have shown that drinking alcohol could actually be one of the best ways to prevent some of the nastiest vacation-ruining illnesses.
Stomach bugs like listeria, salmonella and E. coli are common pitfalls for travelers visiting areas where sanitation standards are lower than those to which they (and their immune systems) are accustomed. Luckily for wine lovers, studies have shown that when alcohol is consumed, the risk of succumbing to foodborne illnesses decreases significantly. Alcohol's high acidity makes it easier for the stomach's natural acidity to kill pathogens.
U.K.-based food scientist Richard Conroy is an ardent supporter of drinking on holiday for this very reason. "If someone is traveling to somewhere like Mexico, where salmonella [for example] is more common, you could be protected by having some wine—or tequila—with dinner," he told Wine Spectator. He cited all-inclusive resorts as some of the most likely places to pick up foodborne illnesses while traveling abroad, especially when buffets are involved, since food can sit out under a heat lamp for hours on end. Poorly treated water sources are another culprit for the ruin of many a holiday.
As founder of vacation-illness compensation firm SickHoliday.com, Conroy sees cases of travel-related illness daily. In the past year, according to Conroy, his company has assisted more than 15,000 individuals who got food poisoning while on holiday. While he said he was happy to encourage travelers to enjoy a drink "for medical purposes," he joked that passing along this tip for minimizing risk of illness won't do his business any favors.
But avoiding food poisoning isn't as simple as enjoying a glass of wine in your hotel room at the end of the day. According to Randy Worobo, professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, in order to inactivate the pathogens, alcohol must be consumed either while eating the contaminated food or very shortly after. The amount you drink matters, too. "The higher the alcohol [percentage], the more inactivation you're going to get of the foodborne pathogens," said Worobo. "So, your wine of 14 percent alcohol is going to have more of an effect in terms of killing the foodborne pathogens compared to lower-percentage alcohol such as beer." Of course, Worobo does not recommend drinking excessively, which could lead to feeling ill for a different reason.
Several studies have found evidence that wine can kill potent bacteria. In 2007, some red wines were proven helpful in inhibiting bacteria growth, and a 2004 report found that the grape skins, seeds and stems left over after winemaking proved deadly to E. coli, salmonella and staph.