Modern Herbalists have only just begun to explore a tool that was well known to herbalists of old: Apple Cider Vingar. For centuries, healers and householders used vinegars and fermented food techniques to preserve and enhance both diet and medicine. In times when our bodies were more challenged by the environment, we needed to really fire-up our digestive systems to stay healthy. As it turns out Apple Cider Vinegar and its sour, fermented cousins are a perfect fit for just that.
James Green in The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook: A Home Manual talks about why vinegar fell out of fashion in Western culture. He connects the rise of modern medicine’s heroic and dramatic healing style to vinegar’s demise. It makes sense. Vinegars are a perfect menstrum for herbs that are tonifying, expectorant, and generally nutritive, and they’re a perfect addition to one’s daily diet for general health as well as for assisting the body in recovery and long-term healing. Vinegar is particularly good at extracting the sweet and salty tastes from herbs, making them a good base for nutritive herbs like nettles, oat straw, raspberry leaf, and alfalfa. Vinegars are natural preservatives, perhaps not as potent as a strong alcohol may be but most definitely powerful enough for our ancestors to rely on them heavily as both food and medicine. They fit the needs for prevention and recovery but aren’t necessarily right for the kind of dramatic intervention techniques that were just developing a century or so ago. Which, according to Green, is why they fell from favor among modern healers.
Thanks to practical and wise herbalists like Rosemary Gladstar, Mary Blue, Nicole Telkes, and Kathi Langelier, vinegar has started to make a come back in the form of Fire Cider as well as a host of other related herbal remedies. Fire Cider and the many related recipes now often called Fire Tonics, as well as Four Thieves vinegar and related cleansers all tap into the core energetics and actions many vinegars share. They’re generally cooling and moving, making them and Apple Cider Vinegar perfect for conditions of the digestive system and inflammatory conditions. Those core energies seem contradictory, being both stimulating and cooling, building and expectorant at first glance, but on a closer inspection you can see how Apple Cider vinegar in particular offers a powerful balance to the modern herbalist’s toolkit.
Traditional Western Herbalism and Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple Cider Vinegar’s sour property stimulates digestion, helping the system to move into action to better break-down and absorb nutrients including minerals and alkaloids that are often harder to digest. Pectin and related components from the Apples used to make Apple Cider Vinegar offers a cooling, soothing, building or tonifying action that helps repair any damage to the digestive system or other tissues. So, while Apple Cider Vinegar stimulates the digestive system, it also cools the system. Likewise, Apple Cider Vinegar has a draining property that’s often described as expectorant or outwardly moving. For that reason, it’s often been used in preparations designed to clear or cleanse like Fire Cider and for reducing cholesterol. At the same time, Apple Cider Vinegar has a building or tonifying property similar to its cooling property, which is why it’s often used for making nutritive and tonifying preparations like Bone Building Vinegars.
Much like the stimulating-cooling aspect of ACV, this draining-building set of properties makes Apple Cider Vinegar a powerful tool for bringing balance to a dis-regulated system. Traditional Western Herbalists in the past as now used Apple Cider Vinegar to tone lax tissues and to bring more action to a slow or sluggish digestive system without creating a state of unbalance. Apple Cider Vinegar infused with a variety of herbs was included in restorative diets for debilitated conditions and as a general system-support for people with a weak constitution due to age, lifestyle, or genetics. Families in general tended to make use of fermented foods and vinegars in particular daily for their preservative nature. Apple Cider Vinegar infused with herbs or just on its own was often used as a general preventative; sour was a more respected and standard part of the daily diet a couple of centuries ago than it is today.
Ayurveda and Apple Cider Vinegar
In Ayurvedic practice, vinegar and Apple Cider Vinegar in particular is considered rajasic. That means it’s full of Pitta or Pitta-stimulating properties. Rajasic foods and medicines are terrific in small doses to stimulate digestion and heat-up or fire-up the body’s systems. As Amadea Morningstar writes in Ayurvedic Cooking for Westerners: Familiar Western Food Prepared with Ayurvedic Principles, “Energetically, rajasic foods stimulate more fire, outward motion, creativity, aggression, passion. They are good foods for stirring up trouble or spurring on the dragons within.”
Chili peppers and garlic are easily recognizable rajasic foods when you consider how just a little goes a long way with each of these. When you consider the potent effect vinegar and fermented foods have on your mouth, making you pucker up when they’re really sour, it’s easy to see their rajasic property. As a Pitta-increasing food or medicine, Apple Cider Vinegar helps get the digestive system moving. Most specifically, Apple Cider Vinegar stimulates the Liver and Gallbladder to kick into action, increasing the digestive system’s fire and ability to break-down foods. As Apple Cider Vinegar moves through the digestive system, it helps to improve the body’s ability to absorb and use nutrients without adding a lot of heat or excessive activity to the system.
TCM and Apple Cider Vinegar
Rice Wine Vinegar is the primary vinegar used in Traditional Chinese Herbal Remedies and cooking. It’s described as tonifying, warming, and astringent and is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder meridians. In areas where Apple Cider Vinegar is the more abundant or easily available fermentation, you can generally substitute ACV for Rice Wine Vinegar in both cooking and healing. Be aware, though, that Apple Cider Vinegar is likely to have a stronger cooling action than Rice Wine Vinegar in part because the process for making rice wine vinegar includes steps that may contribute slightly to making it a warmer preparation, meaning it may have a slightly more stimulating effect than Apple Cider Vinegar would. In terms of the general motion either promote, TCM uses vinegars to support proper movement in the Liver and Gallbladder meridians, classifying the action as generally absorbing, consolidating, and tightening or astringent, according to Maoshing Ni and Cathy McNease in The Tao of Nutrition. This makes Apple Cider Vinegar appropriate when you need to tighten tissues, heal wounds, and improve absorption or digestion.