Every now and then, it’s worthwhile to explore medical folklore, alternative treatments and home remedies. Just because it isn’t taught in medical school, doesn’t mean there isn’t a kernel of truth in it. Sometimes all it takes is an exploration and a good scientific study to learn grandma’s old-fashioned treatment isn’t farfetched. For instance, it’s scientifically established that ginger helps decrease nausea. There are similar benefits of consuming apple cider vinegar (ACV).
So, what’s the deal with ACV? There are websites that tout the “20 health benefits of ACV.” Twenty health benefits! Not many things help us in 20 ways. According to the Internet, ACV lowers cholesterol, helps you lose weight, treats acne, reduces blood pressure, reduces acid reflux, helps your gut, calms sunburns, soothes poison ivy, kills fleas, treats allergies and makes your armpits smell better. And don’t forget, mix it half-and-half with water and you have a really good household cleaner.
First off, understanding what ACV is will help explain, or rationalize, why there are so many health claims for it. Vinegar is the French word for sour wine. It’s yeast-fermented apples with bacteria added for additional fermentation. This creates plenty of acetic acid, the active ingredient in vinegar.
Acetic acid can kill bacteria. There are studies that show it has antibacterial, anti-fungal, and antiviral properties. This is the rationale for using diluted ACV to cure acne. There are zero scientific studies regarding this, but plenty of instructional and anecdotal websites for doing such. The same goes for killing the bacteria in armpits that breakdown the lipids and amino acids in our sweat, which cause odor. It is these “rational thoughts” that fuel much of alternative medicine and should be the starting place for medical research. Making sweet smelling armpits might not be as glamorous as curing cancer, but it’s probably just as profitable.
ACV research has proven it can kill fungus. There is a scientific paper reporting its success at treating candidiasis. It has been used to treat oral thrush (candidasis) and denture stomatitis (inflammation caused by fungus in places where dentures rub). As a side effect, it has been shown to whiten teeth, but also slowly wear down enamel if used too often. For people who are prone to swimmer’s ear infections, or yeast infections of the ear canal, there are eardrops that are a mix of alcohol and vinegar. There are even prescription eardrops that have no proven benefit over a homemade mixture, but cost a lot more.
The claims that apple cider vinegar can help with weight loss, cholesterol, and blood pressure are based on rat studies. One provocative study examines 18 rats divided into groups. One group was fed a high-fat diet; the other group was fed a high-fat diet along with ACV. The ACV group had less weight gain, lower blood sugar (by 25 percent), lower cholesterol (by 34 percent), and lower LDL (by 59 percent). Some of those benefits were due to the fact that the rats that drank ACV ate less food. A second study by a different research group, found that ACV lowered hemoglobin A1c (a biomarker for long-term blood sugar control in diabetics). That study also confirmed ACV lowered LDL, serum triglycerides, and increased HDL—all moves in the right direction for rats looking to improve their lipid profile. Studies in humans are scarce, small and of short duration. One study of 19 adults in Iran found that LDL and serum triglycerides were lowered. There was an insignificant increase in HDL. The study was only eight weeks long.
The studies looking at hypertension were also in rats. ACV lowers renin, an enzyme that is partway responsible for increasing blood pressure. The rats had lower blood pressure likely directly due to decreased renin levels, but this study has yet to be replicated in humans.
Before you start guzzling ACV, it does have a few warnings. It can lower potassium, and low potassium can be dangerous. This is important for people taking some medications such as certain blood pressure medicines or digoxin. A low potassium along with the effects of digoxin can cause abnormal heart rhythms.
Overall, ACV is a relatively safe, vastly under-studied, naturally-made vinegar that has a rational basis for health benefits. It’s important to be aware that the studies done in rats and in humans have them taking a significant amount of ACV (30 milliliters twice a day, for example, in one human study), so taking a teaspoon here or there probably won’t make the difference most of us are looking for. But a teaspoon in your armpit will make it smell…interesting.
Salvatore Iaquinta, M.D., is a head-and-neck surgeon at Kaiser Permanente. He is also the author of The Year They Tried to Kill Me.
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